When you move away from the place where you grew up, one of the hardest things to leave behind is your family. Leaving the Bay Area for New York City, it was almost as hard to wave goodbye to one of my other daily staples: Mexican food. Something I had grown accustom to through my family’s traditional Mexican cooking and the abundance of taquerias in the bay.
After driving across the country and arriving during the hottest summer in New York history (fiancé and dog in tow), I was broke, and continuing to rack up the cheapest nightly room rates at the Best Western off Broadway Junction, after the third apartment we were supposed to move into fell through. My cravings for home, and thus, Mexican food, were growing exponentially by the day.
But when I started my hunt, I found out Mexican food means a million things in New York– especially in Manhattan. Manhattan must never have met a chili it liked. It seems to have deported most of them from the island, along with its primo: the pepper, to the outer boroughs. This must be why most New Yorkers are unfamiliar with “orange sauce”, an atomic elixir for… just about everything. Nicer restaurants usually mean less spice. So do clean floors. Counterintuitive it may be, but I always judge a restaurant by its cover, and a Mexican restaurant should look like an old classic that’s been handed down and shared among friends. The pages should be splattered, and yeah, there should be some dirt around the edges.
Also, the unwieldy beast known only as the “Mission burrito” doesn’t stalk the streets of New York. A monster so notorious, generations of food critics (most recently Anthony Bordain) have to come slay it, they’re made with tortillas so large you could use them as baby blankets. San Franciscan’s eat these burritos like many New Yorkers eat pizza– multiple times a week and in many variations.
So there I was, burrito-less and homesick, when I finally found Mexicocina in the Bronx. Granted, there are no baby-sized burritos at this hole-in-the-wall, which is smaller than my storage unit eight blocks away, but it’s muy delicioso. I found it one of those scorching days last summer when a friend from the Bay Area and I were dying for a taste of home, and we stopped in before schlepping more boxes from the Bronx to my place in Brooklyn. Now, I’ll gladly take the hour long train ride from my apartment under the guise of a winter coat or some book tucked away in some box, just as an excuse to get a taste of their simple corn tortilla tacos with carnitas, cilantro and onion.
But something was still missing. Even the best and most authentic Mexican food here isn’t going to be “like home”. The food I remember my mom and Nana cooking from family tradition were never written down– always a little different and never easily replicated. So it’s nowhere close when I make it myself. Not to mention, I always burn the rice.
I always loved to cook, but never bothered with my family’s style. If I wanted mom’s Mexican mole’ or Spanish rice, I took a $10 train from San Francisco to see her in San Jose within an hour. If I wanted chicharones (crispy pig skin), I showed up at the family reunion each summer for the whole roast pig and fought over it with the rest of my family– while all the uncles fought over the ears and snout. As for salsa, my Nana made sure there were always frozen stock piles in our fridge. You just don’t do better than Nana’s salsa.
But I decided to try. So I took the first step toward authentic home cooked Mexican food and bought a live pepper plant from a garden store in my neighborhood. Then I called my mother to grill her for as much detail about her Spanish rice recipe as I could pry, and my Nana for her salsa secrets.
For one of my initial attempts, I threw a small dinner party for some of my graduate classmates from NYU. Of course I burned the rice, and initially the salsa wasn’t nearly as spicy as it should have been, (despite loading it with half the peppers from my plant), until we finally resorted to heaping it with hot sauce. The one thing that turned out nearly identical was the sopapias. Tortillas cut into small triangles and then fried until they puff up with air, then lightly dusted with cinnamon and sugar, my mom would make these for dessert growing up. I added my own twist, stuffing chocolate and piña colada-flavored ice cream inside while they were still piping hot– my version of a Mexican ice cream sandwich.
Despite the success of the sopapias, rather than quell my cravings for my family’s home cooking, this experience only served to heighten them. My palate suddenly recalling the flavors from my childhood– unsatisfied with my charlatan attempts at the other courses.
So I reached out to my Nana to send me the one thing I craved most that I knew would hold up in the mail and that I couldn’t screw up: chorizo.
When that package arrived and I fried the chorizo for the first time in my apartment, 3500 miles evaporated between my Nana’s house in Northern California and my apartment in Brooklyn. The smells teleported me to her kitchen with the crackle of the grease in the pan, the deep red meat falling apart in a spicy coagulate of goodness. I fried up potatoes and eggs and ate it all with tortillas.
Since I moved to New York, I eat more chorizo than I did at home, and I continue to have my Nana send me monthly rations. I’ve realized, it was never the food I was craving, but my family– and you just can’t have meals together via Skype. Well, not yet.