Next week, Mexico celebrates two centuries of independence from Spain. This week, the Food Dude gives you part one of the 200 reasons why he loves Mexican food.
As has been pointed out in this space more than once, Cinco de Mayo is a minor holiday in Mexico. The big one s a little more than a week away, Diez y Seis de Septiembre — or the less sexy Sept. 16.
Mexican food is the reason I love food. I was born near Tijuana in San Diego County, Calif., and raised in Austin, Texas. Mexican cuisine has been ubiquitous in my life — save for two years in Nebraska where corn is plentiful, but tortillas inexplicably are not.
Here is part one of my 200 reasons to love Mexican food:
1. Chiles. Whether dried or fresh, hot, sweet or mild, this is the foundation of Mexican cuisine.
2. Jalapeno. The most popular chile, it's plenty spicy when fresh but even more popular pickled.
3. Knob onions. The broad-based green onions are great on the grill or after a good rinse.
4. Tomatoes. Almost as ubiquitous as chiles, they're a staple in Mexican cuisine, whether fresh or roasted, whole, sliced or diced.
5. Cactus fruit. Clean well before candying or using to infuse oils or spirits.
6. Tomatillo. While it looks like a green tomato, it's actually a member of the berry family. Its extreme tart flavor is ideal for salsas.
7. Anaheim chiles. These mild chiles are usually roasted and skinned. They can be used in sauce or for stuffing.
8. Black beans. Winter is near, meaning black bean and chorizo soup is close behind.
9. Serrano chiles. My personal favorite, though my initiation was at the hands of a neighbor intent on revenge. He got it, but it sparked a lifelong love affair.
10. Avocado. Aguacate in Spanish, it's the best choice for balancing hot salsas while adding creaminess.
Lime. If it's made in Mexico, lime makes it better: beer, salsa, tacos, steak, chicken — you get the idea.
Tortilla chips. Don't mistake my tortilla chip belly for a beer belly. I've worked too long for there to be any confusion.
Poblano chiles. Roasted and skinned, they're optimal for chile rellenos. Dried, they become the apple of Bobby Flay's eye, the ancho. They also make a nice, mild green sauce.
Tacos. This is where my life in food began.
Gorditas. When I think of these masa-based treats, I can only think of those the Little Flower Catholic Church sold at the Oklahoma State Fair.
Frijoles. The Spanish word for beans rhymes with "holy" for a reason.
Rice. Rinsed, lightly fried and partnered with broth and a few vegetables, this is my best chance of getting the kiddos to eat peas and carrots.
Relish. Carrots, red onion and jalapeno pickled in the same brine. "Can we get some more," is the response at our table.
Tortillas. Corn or flour, it's hard to imagine eating any kind of Mexican food without them.
20. Tamales. They filled the void when Santa quit coming to town.
Burritos. If I had a nickel for every one I ate while operating a vehicle, I could afford a limo and driver. But where would the adventure be?
Enchiladas. Winter is for braised beef (short ribs?) and chile rojo. Spring and early summer is for crab with avocado sauce. Late summer and early fall is for pork with green chile. Early winter is chicken and goat cheese/cream sauce.
Salsa. Traditional tacos are simple: homemade tortilla, simply prepared filling and great salsa.
Guacamole. Question: Is there anything better than perfectly ripe avocados mixed with fresh lime juice? Answer: Only if you add a little garlic, salt and chile to the mix.
Carne Guisada. Mexican-style beef tips should be tender, salty and bristling with garlic and toasted cumin flavors. If homemade flour tortillas are available, neither forks nor spoons need apply.
Mole. It comes in green, red, yellow and black. I'm a slave to all of it.
Rick Bayless. The pride of Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City started working at the family barbecue joint and is now one of the world's most accomplished chefs. And he probably wouldn't be if not for his passion for Mexican cuisine.
Cumin. Toast cumin seeds in a hot cast-iron skillet then pulverize them. When the aroma hits your nose, you'll never buy ground cumin again.
Corn. Without corn, there is no masa. Without masa, there are no tortillas. Without tortillas, the world is a little sadder place.
30. Elote. Roasted corn slathered in cheesy, creamy, spicy goodness. Other than that, I can't really vouch for it.
Flautas. When I go to San Marcos, Texas, this is what I order: one beef, one chicken.
Tapatio sauce. The happy vaquero in the large sombrero on the bottle always makes me smile, but not quite as much as the spicy red nectar within.
Bufalo sauce. The first sauce imported from Mexico I ever tried; traffic into my mouth hasn't slowed much since that initial foray.
Valentina sauce. This works great if you're looking to tweak your wing sauce recipe.
Coral Snake Salsa from Iguana Lounge. When the Iguana Mexican Grill revived the concept in 2008, this was the first thing I looked for on the new menu. Thankfully, I found it.
Salsa Verde from the former Las Palomas. Restaurants come and go, but man I wish Las Palomas hadn't. And if it had to close, why couldn't they leave me their salsa verde recipe?
Tacos Calvillo. When Abel's took over the old El Rodeo space on NW 50 near MacArthur, they kept this dish: five steak tacos with cilantro and onions. A genius move. When El Rodeo reopened on NW 39 Expressway, they put the dish on the new menu, though with only four. Hmmm.
Taco salad. Love that tortilla bowl. The vegetarian version at Abel's makes my wife happier than a new pair of shoes. Wait, maybe a gently used pair of shoes. Regardless, it makes her smile, so that makes me smile.
Warm salsa from El Parian. The Edmond eatery has a lot of great stuff, but not much is greater than the warm salsa they put on the table before you order.
40.SW 89 Street. Throw a rock, you hit an excellent taqueria.
Nino's. I've been eating at Nino's since I moved here in the late '80s, and the fajitas have remained top-notch in all those years.
Salsa Especial from Abel's. A monster bowl of fresh avocado mixed with roasted jalapenos, tomatoes and onions. "Can we get that in a to-go box?" is often heard from our table.
Fried jalapenos. I first had them at Chelino's, and now they're pretty much everywhere. It's for a good reason.
Tacos al Pastor. Perhaps the one thing I couldn't live without, pork with red chile and pineapple. Abel's cuts its from a vertical roaster on weekends as it's done in Mexico. Chalo's Tacos does them great each time I order them.
Queso Fundido. Melted cheese. Chorizo sausage. The end.
Chorizo. Fast becoming as effective as bacon, avocado and cream cheese at making better anything it gets near.
Queso Anejo. A pungent dry cheese intent on waking the flavor in all that it graces.
Queso Fresco. This fresh, versatile cheese is great when cubed and dropped in a sizzling skillet of salsa along with some fresh cilantro.
Queso Cotija. This is a milder dry cheese. I top pretty much everything edible with it, and a couple things that aren't.
50.Carne Asada. Grilled beef with some citrus, salt and pepper is served as either a steak or diced and used as a filling. Either way is the right way.
Crema Mexicana. This is a little thinner than the sour cream produced in U.S. dairies. I like to add a little garlic, lemon zest and salt for a dipping sauce or condiment.
Tarahumara. This Norman restaurant packs them in so notoriously that the city has had to step in to control the parking problems. I think it's for the salsa verde. Seriously.
Tableside guacamole from Adobe Grill. It really doesn't get any fresher or better.
Pacifico. I know it's spring when I'm standing over an ice chest full of this Mexican lager and thinking I don't have enough.
Dos Equis Special Lager. Always makes me think of former Oklahoman reporter Jesse Olivarez. Anyone who knows him knows that's a good thing.
Simpatico. What college kid could resist that sleek black bottle? Not this one.
Bohemia. By summer, I've usually graduated from Pacifico to the official sponsor of "Mexico: One Plate at a Time." (The "H" is silent, by the way.)
Pepe Delgados. From 1998 to 2003, I had tamales there every Friday. I can tell you Fridays haven't been the same since I left The Oklahoman's Norman bureau.
Taco Tuesday. Now known as Iguana Tuesdays, chef Ryan Parrot has created the city's best-known calendar promotion on the strength of gourmet street tacos. Thanks, RP.
60.Big Truck Tacos. If Oklahoma City ever rises to national prominence as a food town, it might do so on the wheels of a taco truck. Try the ceviche; you won't be disappointed.
Carnitas. So, you simmer pork shoulder in its own lard for a while, pull it out, cool it and then deep fry it a few more minutes to crisp the edges, and you'll have a hard time eating pork any other way.
Memories of Atomic Burrito. When I think of the place that was doing chipotle before chipotle was born, I think of my very dear friend J.J. Dukes, whose laugh could light up a room. Rest in peace, dear.
Memories of Tulio's in Penn Square Mall. Man, I spent a lot of time and money at Tulio's at Penn Square in the 1990s. While that store is long gone, Tulio's is still around in Norman.
Shrimp Diablo. Casa de Los Milagros makes my favorite, though it's not on the menu. Ask for it, and be pleased.
Chile Colorado. Beef or pork braised in red chiles. Ricky's uses guajillo, and the result is as good as you'll find in the metro.
Chile rellenos. Thanks to chef John Bennett, I now have a batter that makes not only my wife smile, but also my mother. The genius of a roasted pepper stuffed with cheese and some of its best friends came from somewhere south of the border.
Chiles de arbol. The Mexican answer to cayenne pepper. For me, it's the correct answer.
Molcajete y tejolote. This ancient, lava rock tool is still the best one for making fresh salsas and guacamole.
Churros. Fry bread with cinnamon and sugar. Check, please.
70.Special salsas at Diego's. Though the taqueria menu got lost in the relocation, the special salsas are truly inspired.
Memories of Monterey Jack's. The fajitas were good, the company was great. The '90s are officially the '80s.
Agave nectar. Fantastic alternative sweetener.
Garlic. Between the chiles and the tomatoes and tomatillos lies garlic, which binds it all together with an assist from salt. Teamwork rules.
Jicama. If the question is, "How do you breath life into coleslaw?," this is the answer.
Nopalitos. Yes, you can eat cactus. I promise.
Chile pequin. Imagine if the BBs from a BB gun exploded on impact.
Enchilada Wednesdays. Before Taco Tuesday there was $3.99 enchilada Wednesdays, but so many places started doing it, it's difficult to remember who did it first. I'm thinking Pepe's in Edmond.
El Charro. It was the Alpha for Mexican restaurants. El Charrito, El Chico on Paseo, Pepe's, Laredo's and Casa de Los Milagros are its direct descendants. All owe a debt of gratitude.
The Green Chile special at The Border Crossing. Gone but not forgotten.
80.Los Arcos. The things they do on the grill are probably more than we deserve.
Fajitas. First had them at the Austin Aqua Festival in the early 1980s. The festival is gone, but fajitas are to Mexican food what YouTube is to the Internet.
"Salsa Picosa." A kind waiter once told me that if I wanted spicier house-made salsa, that's the term I should use. It hasn't failed me yet.
Bunuelos. Fry bread is never bad, unless you're on a diet. Then it's just mean.
Sopaipillas. See above.
Mango. When it's ripe, it's right.
Papaya. Looks weird, tastes great.
Shrimp Coctel. Proves that beer goblets are good for something other than serving beer.
Radishes. Until I ate them sliced on tacos, I wasn't really sure what good they were. Now, I can't eat tacos without them.
Pico de Gallo. The Rooster's Beak indicates that the ingredients are fresh. Its omnipresence on menus indicates how good it is.
90.Nachos. About as Mexican as a Taco Bell, but if you try the pulled pork variety that Iron Starr Urban Barbeque makes, you'll understand where I'm coming from.
Margaritas. As a youngster, I once pointed them out on a menu to my mother, who always talked about how much she loved them. Problem was, we were lunching with church folks. Sorry, Mom.
Tequila Sunrise. It's not just an Eagles song, and I'll bet The Dude is OK with them when he runs out of White Russians.
Vanilla. I'm pretty sure you can't come back from Mexico without it.
Pan Dulces. Go to a local panaderia, you'll then understand.
Tortas. A fresh bolillo roll stuffed with beans, guacamole, the protein of your choice and salsa. Yes, it does sound good.
Chile con carne. Meat and chile. It's even good when served in a tin can with overcooked beans.
Refritos. Beans fried in bacon grease and broth. Wrap them in a flour tortilla with a nice red chile sauce, and your Friday night/Saturday morning is complete.
Loco Burrito from Pepe Delgados. I like it for the same reason my friend Andrew Gilman recommended it, "Because it's loco."
Ted's tortillas. Long lines are bad. Ted's tortillas are good.
100.Corn Tortillas at Guatelinda. Yes, it's a Guatemalan restaurant. But it's tough to find a place that serves handmade corn tortillas.