Mexican Food Coma, Part I
Eating my way through Monterrey, all in the name of 'research'
I need a salad. And a gym. And a glass of water.
Having returned from a weeklong, gluttonous bender sampling almost all of what the Mexican state of Nuevo León has to offer, I have many stories to tell, and discoveries to relate.
As many of you know, I am working hard on a cookbook with my friend Patricio Wise that will cover the cuisine of northern Mexico. I’ve been cooking Mexican food and collecting Mexican cookbooks for years, started learning Spanish a few years ago (I wrote about that journey here), and have begun forays into the various states to get to know the people, and the food, first hand.
(If you’re looking for insight on why I am spending so much time on Mexican cuisine, I wrote about that extensively here.)
Patricio, Pato to most, was born and raised in Monterrey, one of the largest, and arguably the richest, of all Mexican cities. It’s about three hours from McAllen, Texas, by car and shares a lot of cultural similarities with southern Texas, where I was touring just a couple months ago.
This was his and his wife Cinthia’s first real trip back since the Pandemic began, and the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, to the older folks in the audience) hit them hard and fast. They arrived a few days before I did, so they were in full stride (Read: hungover) the moment I touched down. What followed was a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-style banzai week of eating and drinking that has me eating greens, exercising and drinking a lot of water this week to recover.
Let me start by saying that while the food of Nuevo León isn’t TexMex, despite their proximity, they do share a few things in common:
Flour tortillas are big, but not universal. And they are thinner than a typical Texas flour tortilla, but not as thin as a Sonoran tortilla.
Beef is big, but not king. That would be Sonora. In Nuevo Leon, kid goat holds the highest place of protein honor. Cabrito, suckling goat, is the pinnacle, and not to be missed.
Cheese. Lots of cheese. I never did see Texas-style yellow cheese in Nuevo Leon, but I sure did see a ton of panela, which is a little like halloumi in that you can grill or sear it, as well as asadero, their preferred melty cheese.
Flautas. Also known as taquitos or tacos dorados, these are rolled corn tortillas, usually stuffed with shredded chicken, that are fried and usually topped with something like avocado-tomatillo salsa, or tons of cheese and shredded lettuce.
Pinto beans. Lots and lots and lots of pinto beans, although there is another bean prominent in Nuevo León called the bayo bean, which is a little smaller and darker.
Other than that, you’re talking a whole new deal here.
The eating schedule is way different: Breakfast can last until 11 a.m., lunch rarely starts before 1 p.m., and can last to 4 or 5 p.m. Dinner? Well, it’s almost like Madrid: Don’t even think about starting until about 8 p.m., and 10 o’clock isn’t unusual, even on a workday.
Beer drinking can start at breakfast with a caguamita, a little bottle of Carta Blanca beer that, at 4 percent alcohol, is more like a vuelve a la vida, hair of the dog, to get you going again. I was honestly a little surprised to see the shots of tequila appear at lunch — but Pato and everyone else assured me this was normal — but I couldn’t go there: I really like mezcal and tequila, but I drink it at the end of my day as a signal for my busy brain to calm the eff down. Not ideal when it’s 2 p.m.
Going with the flow saw me down close to ten drinks in a day, which I didn’t even normally do back when I was in college, and which left me with la cruda the following morning, which is no fun. So I accepted my fate as a lightweight and drank a lot of Topo Chico mineral water all day, saving the beers for nighttime.
One of the coolest things Pato and Cinthia showed me was the array of special tacos and taco-like things that are either exclusive to Nuevo León, or are at the very least popular there. It’s interesting how few taco styles have made it across the border, given how much Americans love tacos — and I’m not even talking about “weird” stuff like offal or unusual vegetables.
Just take the baseline of carne asada as one example.
Pretty much everywhere in northern Mexico, a carne asada taco will be served on a flour tortilla, with grilled or seared onions (sometimes raw), a salsa (or two) and maybe some cilantro. From there, you get:
Piratas, which add grilled melty cheese to the flour tortilla. Pato sells these as his standard carne asada taco at his restaurant Nixtaco here in California.
Gaoneras, which can be on corn or flour tortillas, and are best described as a sort of thin meat blanket covering the tortilla. It’s very thin cut steak, all in one piece, seared very quickly. You then add regular toppings to the meat.
Trompos, normally the realm of tacos al pastor in the rest of Mexico, here in Nuevo León you can see them made with lamb (cordero) or beef. Sliced off the spinning vertical spit, they are a lot like the Greek and Lebanese gyros I grew up with in New Jersey.
Aguja, which is a particular cut of beef at the very bottom of the ribs… maybe. We ate these at El Principal in Blanquillo, and, well, our friend Primo, who has a degree in meat science from Texas A&M, said even he can’t quite figure out where the cut we had was coming from. Spine, maybe? At any rate, it’s a very flavorful, chewy piece of meat that makes a helluva taco.
Tacos de Ribeye, spelled in various ways, is what you think it is. Fancy, high-dollar tacos in some places, where you could order them made with wagyu beef, or just a few pesos more at regular taquerias.
And that’s just some of the riffs of steak + tortilla we found.
Everything about the food in Monterrey was a little different from what I was used to from Sonora or Baja, let alone the Mexican food here in Sacramento, which is heavily influenced by Michoacán and Jalisco, or the “Mexican” food you find in many other parts of the U.S.
There were empalmes, a sort of hybrid sandwich and enchilada, filled with refried beans and chicharron or cabrito. Their chicharrones (cracklin’s) were served more often with a red salsa than the typical green in the rest of the country.
Their enchiladas were neon red, too, made by moistening the corn masa with chile sauce, not water. These are then stuffed with cheese and onions, and served, well, with even more cheese.
Lentils! I’d been dimly aware that lentils are a thing in Mexican cooking, but they are big in Nuevo León, especially as a soup. I also found crispy lentil snacks, too, which are pretty cool. Mexico is a top grower of lentils (mostly in Michoacán) but they eat so many they import more from Canada and the U.S. Who knew?
Burnt or browned dairy shows up a lot in desserts, from a phenomenal concha with nata we ate several times — a concha is a sort of semi-sweet cakey bun, and nata is clotted cream, the stuff at the top of good yogurt. The nata in this case was slightly burnt or browned, adding a touch of savory to what is an amazing breakfast treat.
Glorias, a very famous Nuevo León candy, are made from goat’s milk caramel and have a strong cooked/browned flavor.
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I could go on, and I will once our book comes out — and no, I have no idea when just yet. Because here’s the thing: While this was a crazy full week of eating too much and drinking too many cervezas, a week in which I learned a ton, it was still just a week.
One trip, in one state. We are covering seven Mexican states: Baja, Baja Sur, Sonora, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. That means many trips like this one. We want to give Americans a sense of the true norteño cuisine, and to give Mexicans from those states a cookbook they can read and say, yep, that gringo and that regio (Mexican slang for a person from Monterrey) covered all the bases. (And yes, our hope is to publish in English and Spanish.)
Stay tuned for periodic updates as we travel. It’s going to be an adventure. And I’m going to need to up my workout routine…