A Texan on Mexican Food: A primer for the Yankee palate…

March 23, 2012


by Pale Rider

Being a Massachusetts transplant from Texas, I know the pain of trying to find real authentic Mexican food in the Boston area. After arriving here in the late 1980s, I learned quickly never to trust the recommendation of a townie, because they simply did not know good Mexican food from Shinola. One of the first places I tried, which came highly recommended, literally had boiled potatoes and boiled meat inside the tortilla. Boiled POTATOES! All I needed to complete my Irish boiled dinner was the cabbage! If I want good chowda or Italian meal, I ask a Bostonian. But Mex? No way. At least not back then.*

San Antonio's Legendary Mi Tierra, a Tex-Mex Treasure!

When we first got to Rockland ten years ago, there was a tremendously popular place in Abington called Carmen’s. The joint was always mobbed. Cautiously, the wife and I gave it a try. We were surprised to see some things on the menu that you might find in an authentic place, like flautas, which my wife loves. So she ordered the flautas, but what the waitress brought her were burritos. I ordered the enchiladas, and guess what I got? Yep. Burritos. We thought they’d made a mistake on our order, but no, we were told, these were the flautas and enchiladas. Looking around, we came to the conclusion that, in fact, everything was a burrito! No matter what you ordered, you got a freakin’ burrito. The salsa tasted like ketchup, the guacamole was made in a blender, and don’t even get me started on Carmen’s pitiful excuse for a margarita. But again, as bad as it was to aficionados like us, the place was packed every night. People around here raved about it. That’s when we realized that many Mass natives had never actually had real Mexican, so they were simply unable to judge the cuisine. They didn’t know good from bad. They didn’t even know the difference between a burrito and an enchilada.

*BTW, Texans think Red Lobster is good seafood…

Eventually, we found the one-and-only place on the South Shore that would even stand a chance in Texas, and that’s El Sarape in Weymouth Landing. It has consistently good authentic food, and killer margaritas.

As time has passed, the quality of Mexican and other foreign cuisines has gotten much better around the Boston area. People are more well-travelled and aware; more sophisticated and worldly in their tastes. Thank The Lord! Best of all, An authentic Mexican Restaurant with high-quality hand-made food has arrived on the shores of Union Street, Rockland. Tres Amigos is the realio dealio! This is great news for me, and great news for Rockland.

But before we review Tres Amigos, here’s Mexican Food 101: A primer for the Yankee palate.

How DO you judge a Mexican restaurant? Well, like a lot of things, the devil is in the small details. It’s the little things, the simple basic features that make all the difference. It’s the sauces and sides and such.

The first thing to try is the chips and salsa. A good salsa bodes well for the whole menu. Above all, the salsa has to be very fresh. We like a salsa with a snappy balance of bite and savory. It should have an aromatic zest of cilantro, a good zing from the onions and some picante burn, along with plenty of red tomato flavor. If it has green chilis in it, that’s a bonus. It should not be overly thick and chunky. Most of all, it should not taste like ketchup, or worse, Mama Maria’s pasta gravy. And yes, we have had so-called salsa that tasted exactly like Ragú.

Next you have to try the guacamole. Making great guac is a big deal in genuine Mexican places, and they take a lot of pride in it. Again, freshness is the key, and the avocado should not be polluted by tons of other ingredients. Some purists like it simple: Chunky mashed avocado and salt. But we like to fancy it up just a bit. Some diced tomatoes and onions are nice, and again with some cilantro sprinkled in there. But it shouldn’t be to the point where there’s actual red salsa mixed in, or sour cream. And the guac shouldn’t be real limey or pureed in a blender. Less is more. You don’t want to take away from the goodness of the avocado.

Then we look at the tortillas, and this is where a LOT of places fall short. Some dishes are meant to have flour tortillas, and other should have corn. An authentic taco uses a softened corn tortilla, not flour. An enchilada is usually corn, and I prefer corn, but flour is also acceptable. Your big soft flour tortilla is for the burrito and the fajita. A flauta or taquito should have a crispy deep-fried corn shell. Carmen’s was all wrong in this department, unless of course, you ordered a, um, burrito.

Enchiladas con Mole. Savor!

Enchiladas w/ Mole Suace at Mercado Juarez, Dallas.

Sauces! This is really where the rubber meets the road. There are red sauces, green sauces and brown sauces. One sauce that we revere is called mole (pronounced moe-lay), or mole poblano. It is a notoriously hard-to-make dark brown sauce created from something like 27 ingredients, including bitter chocolate, ground pumpkin, and red chilis. Most places won’t even attempt it. Some menus offer it, but it’s canned, not fresh-made. Up until now, only El Sarape’s mole has been worth having, and we have it on enchiladas pretty much every time we eat there.

Finally, there is the tequila. Oh, the wonderful tequila*. Good margaritas and a well-appointed tequila bar will put the icing on the cake of a great Mexican dinner experience, along with a frosty cold Mexican beer or two. Or three.

Given our hit-list of criteria, how does Rockland’s Tres Amigos stack up?

With flying colors my friends! Flying colors!

Read the review here.

*Click here to see Pale Rider’s famous tequila blog.

Mariachis Serenade Diners at Pale Rider's Favorite Mexican Restaurant, Garduños of New Mexico.