I have to confess a lifelong love affair with Mexican cuisine. Generally speaking, Mexican food not only excites my taste buds, but it has a primitive yet noble character that just makes me feel good. This comes from the relatively simple ingredients that form its dishes, slow cooking and imaginitive seasoning that yield wonderful and sophisticated taste sensations; for example, what can be more elemental than masa—the corn flour used for tortillas? Even the way tortillas are prepared is primitive; mixed with water, lime and salt and beaten on a stone, then patted by hand and used to hold no end of fiery, savory morsels, the corn tortilla was ancient in America long before the Spanish came. It is a yin to the often rich, peppery, combination of textures and spice yang inside the carrier torilla, yet no matter how magnificent the meal, it can’t be complete without the humble masa tortilla alongside it.
Living in California, we all know a good deal about Mexican food—or we like to think we do, since we’ve eaten so many staple dishes over the years from a variety of places. Everyone has a favorite little hole in the wall taqueria; people rhapsodize about the mole or al pastor at this place or that, but when you stop to think about it, there must be much, much more to Mexican cooking than the common dishes we know. Some people seek out other restaurants where Mexican forms of preparing fish and other seafoods make up the menu, while a few brave ones visit the ethnic markets to learn about chiles, queso and the about the mysteries of how to cook properly on open fires to get the peppers to roast just the right way. That kind of effort can be richly rewarded in San Diego; there are many people here who can prepare all the regional forms of Mexican cooking and many of the ingredients common to much of Mexico are here or can be imported. We can eat of their cuisine as well as anyone can. Fortunately, there is another fine place in which to sample some excellent forms of the cuisine.
It was a great pleasure to luck into Aqui es Texcoco in Chula Vista. I happened to meet the owner, Francisco Perez, one day at a local trade seminar and he told me about his restaurant; the specialty of lamb and rabbit meat used in the dishes, the show for the patrons where the cook chops the lamb shanks on a block for all to see—and the vegetable dishes, including a kind of cross between a quesadilla and fritatta that is filled with fried zucchini flowers, mushrooms and what translates into English as “corn blossoms”. I had to try that, and the dorados de sesos that are a regular feature on the menu and a big hit with the Mexican folk that crowd the place daily. Next day, I showed up for lunch.
This was fun! There’s nothing better than trying new places and new menus and Aqui es Texcoco was a small gem of its kind. Bright and spare, neat as a pin and filled with people devouring plates heaped with food, it had all the proper visuals going for it. There was a crush of kids with their parents ahead of me at the door and I asked one of the kids what she was going to eat. “Cabeza,” she said, smiling. Her sister piped up to say she couldn’t wait for a platter of “Flautas de Barbacoa y salsa verde.” It’s a foolproof method to quiz intelligent-looking children in order to find something interesting to eat in an unfamiliar place. I have rarely been disappointed with this method so, I followed the kids’ example and started with an order of rolled tacos filled with barbecued lamb.
These flautas (flutes) of lamb, as the rolled tacos are called, were excellent. The lamb was done to perfection and was as juicy and tender as necessary. The rolled tacos were quite long and the order of three were liberally covered in shredded lettuce and a slightly tart crema fresca and finely grated queso fresco—a sort of Mexican take on parmesan cheese. Two sauces are available with the lamb; a piquant red that relies on brightness for flavor instead of mere heat from the peppers, and a milder salsa verde. I went for the red and deeply enjoyed the combination of the base note of the rich lamb contrasted with the crunch of the tortilla, and denseness of the crema set off against the red salsa’s top note to the dish. These flautas disappeared in no time; the small order of hot lamb broth on the side, filled with garbanzos, onion and rice (this is a wonderful cold weather soup and perfect for this summer’s lingering June gloom) settled the rolled lamb tacos very nicely and I would have been just fine with a good espresso and maybe some flan at this point—but much work remained to be done. I was on the job and would have to eat more.
After a decent interval, I ordered the cabeza de borrego. This is lamb’s head. In case you’re wondering why anyone would want to eat the head, let me tell you that the head of the lamb has a finer, lighter and more delicate taste than the body does. This is true of other animals, too, whether cows, pig or even goat. When I was a kid, my grandmother would give the kids a plate of the head meat from the goats my grandfather would roast over a charcoal fire in the yard. In Aqui es Texcoco’s offering, the rendered meat is extremely tender, rich and light in taste. It is presented on a large platter with plenty of tortillas, salsas, lemon wedges and diced onion and cilantro. One can vary the condiment seasonings until finding the right mix of tastes. I pretty much left off the lemon and salsa verde; the cilantro added much to the lighter head meat—and I was really beginning to like this place.
Aqui es Texcoco offers lamb ribs and mixtures of lamb and rabbit in a combination plate that you can assemble yourself from the variety of ingredients presented. Sides are also unusual; in addition to the usual beans, rice and potato tacos, a wonderful rendition of nopales salad (cactus fronds) are available as well as honeyed yams. Honeyed yams go with lamb and rabbit the way mashed potatoes goes with fried chicken and gravy and this combination will leave you filled, but happy.
Last thing on the list for the brave souls among you—or at least those not raised in ethnic households that enjoyed foods missed out on by many Americans—are the dorados sesos. These are brains of lamb, grilled to a crispy golden texture. Brains are pure protein, smooth and mild in taste. They’re a cross between a fairly firm tofu and baked potato in texture and taste much like hashed browns, only better because they’re richer. One secret about brains that you likely don’t know is that in many cultures, they are used to give body and richness to sauces. This lasts only until the American customers find out and soon thereafter many cooks substitute cream, butter or mere flour for thickening. If you’ve ever had a particularly rich sauce on meat, duck or even ravioli, you may have had sauces enriched with brains. At Aqui es Texcoco, lamb brain is grilled and served in tacos or in sopes, which are a kind of round masa pocket. These are tasty—and addictive.
To complete the experience, you can enjoy Sangria with your meal or have any of several iced, fresh fruit flavored waters. They serve a café olla—a Mexican bean coffee brewed in clay pots, flavored with cinnamon which is a good way to end the meal along with flan and if you’re in the mood, you can top it all off with rice pudding, too.
Meats are available to go in large quantities by prior arrangement.
Aqui es Texcoco is a carnivore’s delight and gives excellent value for the money. You can be fully stuffed for under ten dollars per person and can easily and happily spend much more. The place is one of those offbeat gems that most Yankees won’t find so if you want to impress friends from out of town with a new form of Mexican cuisine this is the place to go. See you there soon.