Monday, February 18, 2013

Mexiko: Nichts wie weg hier!

One of my earliest food memories is eating steak tacos in Nogales, Mexico with my mother and grandmother when I was about four. I can't explain it, but for whatever reason the taste of that steak taco is more vivid to me than things I've eaten much more recently: the soft flour tortilla, the charred pieces of meat, and the shredded ice berg lettuce - nothing else. In hindsight, it seems unlikely that I would have been allowed to eat lettuce even in border town Mexico, so maybe we were in Tucson and I am blending memories, but the taste is still very real to me. Good Mexican food was a constant in my life until I moved abroad and, while I make it at home with self-imported ingredients, a lack of good Mexican always seems like an oversight in city planning to me, unfair as that may be. Still, somehow I prefer this lack to subpar Mexican restaurants. Few things make me sadder than bad Mexican food. I will admit to feeling a twinge of guilt about this post because I'll be the first to acknowledge that in the six years I've lived in Berlin, Mexican food has improved dramatically. In my early days, the Mexican food to be found here made taco bell look autentico. Many of those restaurants were run by Bangladeshis who had never been anywhere near Mexico. I'm sure they were top-notch Bangladeshi cooks and I so wish they had focused on that, but instead there wasn't any remotely good Bangladeshi or Mexican food to be found. Today there are several Mexican restaurants in Berlin with an actual Mexican on board. At first glance, these establishments look like places I have happily frequented in gentrified areas of various major US cities - the walls are painted bright colors, Mexican streamers decorate the ceilings...The menus look familiar, too: tacos de carnitas, chilaquiles, burritos con tinga de pollo. I sort of wish I had only ever looked into these restaurants and never actually eaten at them. I know all too well that you have to cook the food that your customers want to eat, but I have cooked traditional Mexican food for Germans on several occasions and my guests seemed pretty happy. Honestly, I do not know how the Mexicans involved in these restaurants sleep at night. That may sound extreme. I told you, Mexican food is close to my heart. In the interest of full disclosure, I at at Maria Bonita a few times a couple years ago and remember liking it. I don't have a great excuse for not having been back except that I don't live nearby anymore, they only have a few stools so it's not a great place for catching up with friends, and I've read that it's gone down hill. Tonight we'd planned to go to Maria Peligro, Maria Bonita's Kreuzberg outpost, which is or I should say was, a real restaurant with chairs and tables, but I noticed in the afternoon (by chance) that it is now closed. We almost went to Ta'Cabron, but ended up at Santa Maria (the remaining sister of Maria Bonita). Ta'Cabron seemed a little far for someone this pregnant to travel with no guarantee (and little hope) of a good dinner. I've read a few good things about it, but also a lot of not so good things. I had eaten at Santa Maria a year or so ago and not really liked it, but it seemed a good compromise location-wise and they do also have tables and chairs. Any restaurant can have an off night, I figured... Alas, the food doesn't seem to have changed at all - not a good thing. I had tacos de carnitas and my friend had a burrito de verduras. Neither one of them was disgusting ... but neither was good either. As for the burrito, Mexico actually has a lot of good vegetable dishes. For the life of me, I can't understand why a restaurant claiming to serve "classic street style" food would stuff their vegetarian burrito with eggplant and roasted red peppers. Again, it was fine......not remotely classic and the tamarind-habanero marinade was not at all detectable, but a bean burrito can be a thing of such beauty. There's just no need to be creative, especially when you haven't mastered the basics. And the tacos. Sad, sad tacos. I think the corn tortillas at Santa Maria are actually very good, but they are tiny and when buried under huge piles of greasy meat - you can't appreciate them at all. In fact, it's absolutely impossible to pick up the tacos - you can't even begin to fold the sides in, there's just too much meat. And honestly, the meat isn't all that great. As mentioned, it is way too greasy and there isn't really any spicing, which would be ok if it weren't for the grease and if the carnitas had been properly crisped. Or if there were less of it. Or if was served with anything vegetal beyond a sad miniscule pile of salsa fresca and some minced onions. Santa Maria would save money and make vastly better tacos if they used half the meat and garnished each taco with some shredded iceberg lettuce (here in the land of iceberg lettuce salads no less), a couple sliced radishes, and maybe a cilantro leaf or two. Perhaps they are trying to satisfy meat-happy German customers, but to me the people behind Santa Maria are telling you through their food that Mexican food is simplistic (slap a pile of whatever meat on a plate, don't worry about flavor or texture or ...) and not worth making an effort for. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the cooking at Santa Maria is lazy and lacks soul. If I didn't have two quarts of carne seca in my freezer and a couple cans of green chile in my pantry, I think I'd cry myself to sleep. Santa Maria Oranienstrasse 170 For the record, I've also had disappointing food at Dolores (yes, the quality of the tortilla is important, even in Cal-Mex) and Tipica (actually worse the the meal I had at La Paz in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the old-style Mexican joints possibly Bangladeshi-owned more than six years ago when my now-husband was trying to show me how cosmopolitan the Berlin food scene was - I must really like him to have moved here after that meal).

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