I confess: I’m on record as a source in a story in the newspaper that used to be the News-Press as a Fiesta naysayer. I offered my favorite comparison-borrowing from Hunter S. Thompson’s blistering “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”-calling Old Spanish Days “a jaded atavistic freak-out.” I’ve been known to throw Fiesta for the Rest-a-Us parties, avoiding the whole official shebang as if cascarones contained Ebola and not confetti.
I further confess: I’m afraid of street food. It’s the culinary equivalent of a carnival, and I know enough not to get on rides erected by folks with plans to leave town even if things go well. I realize that for Fiesta, most of the booths support charities, but I don’t assume a local football team’s members are the go-to people for hygiene and cleanliness. I was a teen once, you know.
Nonetheless, as The Independent‘s food editor, I figured I have to take some risks in my reporting. So I decided to eat at Fiesta as much as possible, come Pepto-Bismol or firewater (it was Fiesta, so drinking was necessary, too). Not only did I survive to pen this tale, but I think I have a stronger stomach lining because of it.
On Wednesday, my wife and I snuck in lunch at a surprisingly uncrowded Mercado del Norte. I admit the thought of food paled while trying to comprehend the booth called Kracky Jack’s Rubberband Guns. I also ran into a surprising moral dilemma: Should one buy food from an organization one loathes? I won’t name names, but when a religious organization of men is at the forefront of attempts to stop women’s choice, I choose not to buy their stuff. If that bugs you, feel free not to support groups for peace, justice, the environment, and educating your children to get even.
I ordered carnitas tacos, and as the sun poured through the maroon tents over the eating area at Ralphs, the food turned vivid red, as if in warning. The tortillas seemed store-bought and were floppy-sloppy, even doubled. The meat had some flavor, but not the good, crisp edge some carnitas have. And the salsa was sweet. My wife’s fish taco actually tasted like fish-a small victory. At our table, a bilingual woman refused to eat what she bought, complaining about her cold and stiff tortilla. Her companion said, “It’s not very authentic,” and even gringo me felt sad as I stared over at a three-foot high statue of an anthropomorphized hot dog shooting mustard on himself. He was in a bun wrapped in an American flag. It didn’t comfort me, knowing our food was not only so happy to be eaten it would condiment itself, but that it’s patriotic too, especially given I couldn’t hit the cantina before going back to work. Instead I drank special Fiesta water that was bottled in Las Vegas, since the best water is found in the desert.
Thursday evening, three of us hit El Mercado de la Guerra and Casa Cantina, and I discovered it’s not really Fiesta until you’re wearing some of it (I wound up with salsa in my shirt pocket). I also learned different venues pack different crowds. Casa Cantina, in the Casa de la Guerra Courtyard (cover charge: $5; olives: free), festooned with Bud Light banners because I guess Bud is cerveza in any language, was mostly Anglo, while closer to the Spanish-language band in De la Guerra Plaza was the more Latino crowd. The food also seemed more authentic than out in the “burbs.” La Casa de la Raza sold a torta that was kind of a Mexi-Philly cheese steak, complete with the occasional tri-tip gristly crunch. I also downed a chicken tamale that was a tad dry, and then we headed back to the cantina, where the crowd had grown younger and someone wearing a Joy Division T-shirt caused some serious culture clash.
On Friday, we hit Mercado del Norte because you can walk to it from my neighborhood and we’d pre-lubricated with margaritas made with actual lime juice. (You can’t tell me the Old Spanish made margaritas from a mix.) My wife loved her chicken enchiladas so much I barely got a taste and she almost joined the Apostolic Faith Tabernacle to get the recipe. I had a sope that was too hard to eat with a plastic knife and spoon (why no forks?) as the masa cup was tasty but thick. Perhaps my street food problem is it’s just too damn hard to get the comestibles into my mouth. What’s more, because I couldn’t fill a clown’s mouth with water, break a balloon, and thereby win a stuffed animal I didn’t want, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth.
But Saturday lunch made everything better. We visited Our Lady of Guadalupe, which we could smell from blocks away. We wanted the spot to get our goat, so we headed for the birria tacos, but they were made with beef, tender and yummy. Then we split up. I went for “You spell posole, I spell pozole, let’s call the whole thing delicious.” The depth of chiles in the stew made me want to spelunk to the bottom of the bowl, not that the hominy, chicken (the meat atop seemed to be chicken, not pork), cabbage, and pungent spike of Mexican oregano were anything to sneeze at, even if the slow build of the heat made noses run. The torta my wife got offered grilled sliced beef goodness.
Then a grand idea hit me, perhaps fueled by chile-released endorphins, that this event at Our Lady of Guadalupe might not be Old Spanish Days but New California Days. There was a true mix of races and cultures. And the one thing that holds us together is food, our drive to turn the need to eat into something grander, something cultural, something welcoming, something of which you want to sop up every last bite.