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All of the entries in the guide for Hispanic restaurants follow the same rule of alphabetization. They are listed by the first letter of the real name, ignoring the articles and other descriptive titles. For example, La Fonda Tipica Restaurante would be located under 'F' for Fonda. Taqueria Atotonilco would be located under 'A'. Restaurante Puerto Vallarta Ostioneria would be located under 'P'.
With a few exceptions, these are working class eateries, serving simple, typical, Mexican fast food, like you'd find in any city in Mexico. Whereas the typical Tex-Mex taco is a crispy fried tortilla, filled with lettuce, tomato, ground beef, the Mexican taco usually consists of two soft corn tortillas filled with one of several traditional meat fillings, onion, and cilantro. You'll note that sometimes I describe the food as Mexican, sometimes Tex-Mex, depending on my gut feelings. I think of Tex-Mex as being more heavy with the cumin and chile powder than traditional Mexican food.
In assessing the quality of a taqueria, you should be on the look out for better-than-average of any of the following:
Are they greasy? Over-fried? One thing I've noticed is that our corn here in the States fries up a lighter chip than I've seen in Mexico. Mexican tortillas tend to soak up the fat, due in part to the quality of the corn, possibly due to the use of lard (called manteca) instead of vegetable oil, or possibly due to a lower frying temperature.
A typical taqueria will offer your choice of the following fillings for your taco:
Sesos: Cow brains.
Barbacoa: you'll see this translated as 'barbecue' but it is actually more akin to pot roast.
Carne asada: chopped beef ( res picado) similar to fajita meat, generally tough and chewy.
Pastor: a style of cooking (pastor = pastoral or country style) chunks of pork on a rotating spit. You'll see these as upright, vertical, roasters, usually with a pineapple and onion skewered on top. This is a style very typical of Mexico City.
Alambres: basically a shish kabob (alambre means wire). Sometimes a better cut of meat, sometimes not. Often served with grilled green onions on the side. Note (a la parilla usually means 'grilled' as in camarones a la parilla...grilled shrimp).
Pibil or Cochinita Pibil: usually shows up at better restaurants, This is a slow cooked pork roast, usually cooked with orange juice and garlic, very typical of the Yucatan.
Nopales: the nopal or prickly pear cactus, usually sauteed till tender, and a vegetarians best choice for tacos. Nopales are a little slimy, like okra, but not at all unpleasant.
Aguacate (avocado): When it is blended with lime, chiles, garlic, and onions, it becomes guacamole. The traditional Mexican avocado is small with a thick, black skin, and not as cloyingly sweet as our big old American green Haas avocados.
Most taquerias will serve up soups called caldos or sopas (note: 'soap' in Spanish is jabon, not 'sopa'). Many feature seafood (mariscos) or fish filet (pescado). While the fish is a fish, it's a pez; once it's caught it's pescado. If it comes from the sea, i.e., seafood, it's mariscos. Also on the menu, although usually just offered on the weekend are pozole, which is a chili flavored soup with pork meat and white hominy, and menudo, which is a chili flavored soup with pork or beef tripe.
One of the signs of a good restaurant is if the pozole is served Mexico City style with chopped cabbage, onions, and radishes on the side for adding to the soup.
In Houston, you'll usually find a good ol' Tex-Mex plate of enchiladas, usually cheese or beef, served with refried beans (frijoles refritos) and Mexican style rice (arroz a la).
A very filling sandwich is the Mexican torta, which, when done right, will be a toasted, fresh, bolillo (a French bread type dinner roll), smashed flat and grilled, spread with frijoles, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, and meat of your choice, re: the taco fillings, or, milanesa, which is a thin scallopine of meat, breaded with cracker crumbs and deep fried ( a battered, fried dish is called 'empanizada', by the way...Milanesa, or Milano style, refers to the cracker or bread crumb breading). Delicious when all the ingredients are freshly prepared.
A burrito, I'm pretty sure, is a Californian invention. You find it in Mexico now, but I never remember seeing it on menus when I was growing up.. Basically it is a taco made with a soft, hot, flour tortilla (re: Taco Bell), rolled, sometimes deep fried but usually not. Burritos at taquerias can be big enough to be a meal in themselves.
A flauta is a corn tortilla, stuffed usually with chicken, rolled tight, and deep fried. Very greasy.
Carne guisada is a stew, usually chunks of beef stewed with potatoes in a chile gravy. It can be very delicately flavored, with a light gravy, or dark and heavy with a lot of chile powder.
Tinga is another kind of stew, usually very spicy, which may show up on a menu.
If you can handle hot food and you see something on the menu that has the word 'chipotle' or 'chipotlado/chipotlada' in its description, this is the smoked, dried, jalapeno pepper, which gives a wonderful but fiery flavor to everything it touches.
Be sure to try an 'agua'. You'll recognize limonada as our limeade. But you need to try an agua de tamarindo (tamarind) which is very tart and tangy, or an agua de jamaica (jamaica pronounced. hah-my'-kah, is the flower of a type of hibiscus, what the Jamaicans call sorrel, and what we know as the flavor in Celestial Seasoning's 'Red Zinger' tea).
There is a traditional seafood cocktail from the state of Veracruz called, "Vuelve a la Vida", which translates as 'return to life'. Various seafoods such as shrimp, octopus, oysters, etc. are served in a sauce made of ketchup or tomato sauce, orange juice, onions, cilantro, and chile peppers.
Huaraches. An open fried masa stuffed with goodies. Huarache is a sandal.
Gorditas. A fat tortilla type masa (similar to an El Salvadoran pupusa), stuffed pita bread style and griddle fried.
Sopes or Zopes. Open flat tortilla fat fried masa topped with goodies, very similar to a chalupa ( chalupa would be a thin fried tortilla).
Quesadillas. Two flour tortillas stuffed with a white mozarella type cheese, griddle fried until the cheese melts.
Horchata. A delicious rice based drink flavored with sugar and cinnamon
Naan- a flat spongy bread, long, and oval, yeast based, fired up in a Tandoor oven.
Puri- a whole wheat dough rolled flat and fast fried to puff up. Usually served in threes with a yogurt dipping sauce.
Paratha- a flat bread like naan, but with a lot of butter blended in to the dough. As far as I can tell, Bhatura is the same.
Onion Kulcha- a naan which has been stuffed with sauteed onions.
Roti- the generic name, equivalent to our word, bread. Note: in Jamaican
cuisine, roti is something completely different.
Quick Dictionary of Indian Foods and Terms
Tandoor- A large clay pot for barbecuing.
Idli- A spongy, moist, thick, flying saucer shaped steamed rice cake.
Sambar- A thin, vegetable broth, slightly sour and spicy, used as a dip with masala dosa or as a soup accompaniment.
Methi Vada- Donut shaped, fried, crispy rice cake.
Pakora- A batter made of bessan flour (ground chick peas), vegetables are dipped and then deep fried. Sometimes called Bhajia, for example, onion bhajias are thinly sliced onions, salted so that some of the water is drawn out, mixed with bessan and deep fried as little clumps.
Samosa- The triangular shaped, empanada like dough with a spicy potato or meat mixture inside.
Paneer- First you bring milk to a boil, then you add lemon juice, vinegar, alum, or some other acidic ingredient to separate the solids from the liquid. The solids are drained from the liquid portion and are then pressed into a soft cheese.
Rasam- Thin, spicy, tomato and tamarind soup.
Raita- Yogurt with onions and cucumbers.
Gulab jamun- Round fried sponge cake ball, dipped in rose flavored sweet syrup.
Pappadum- Crisp, lentil wafers, either baked or deep fried.
Mattar- Green peas.
Channa- Chick peas.
Keema- Ground meat.
Dosas or Dhosas are a Southern delicacy, originally from Madras but now found all over India. Think of them as the Indian crepe or enchilada. These are lentil flour based pancakes, fairly large, stuffed traditionally with a mashed potato and onion mixture flavored with mustard seeds and turmeric. The dosa is made by grinding very fine a mixture of urad dal and rice flour, adding water to the right consistency, and leaving the batter to ferment so that gas bubbles form. Served with sambar which is a thin spicy vegetarian broth or soup, hot tomato chutney, and mild coconut chutney.
Here are several types of Dosas which may show up on a menu.
Plain Dosa: Crepe made with fermented lentil flour.
Masala Dosa: Crepe stuffed with the potato onion mixture.
Rava Dosa: Crepe made of cream of wheat and rice flour.
Pesara Dosa: Crepe made with moong bean flour, onions, chilies, and cumin seeds.
Masala Vada: Crisp deep fried lentil patties.
Methu Vada: Urad dal lentil patties deep fried.
Dahi Vada: Methu vada soaked in yogurt, ginger, and chilies.
Idli: Steamed rice cakes.
Uthappam: Thick pancake made with fermented lentil flour, onions, and chilies.
Upma: Thick cream of wheat type pancake cooked with butter, ginger, onions, chilies, and cashews.