In 1989, after more than three decades of dreading the winters of Long Island and Philadelphia, I decided that I never wanted to see snow again unless I was watching the Olympics on television. For months, I researched the perfect place to move. Now, this was before the internet, so research meant using this archaic thing called the reference section of a library. I spent hours poring over voluminous government, industry and census reports making note of the number of men versus women in certain age groups, their average incomes, economic predictions and real estate prices for various cities in warm climates. I read newspapers, trying to get a flavor of the local culture, looking to see if my short list of cities had a symphony, live theater, low crime and politics that I could tolerate. Mostly, I read the yellow pages. My passion for all things food required that my new home have enough restaurants that I would enjoy. I made lists with checkmarks, notes and columns of pros and cons. How many Vietnamese joints? Was there dim sum on weekends? Could I find Thai and Portuguese food? However, Mexican food was completely absent from my lists. At that time in my culinary education, I knew Mexican food to be globs of yellow cheese melted on some dry, shredded meat that was wrapped in soggy tortillas, and then covered in a runny red sauce. When my Philly friends insisted on Mexican food, I grudgingly ordered fajitas, calling it “Mexican Stir-Fry.” Accordingly, my Philly friends were somewhat surprised when I told them the Phoenix had won the new home lottery. Simply put, it had more checks in the pro column than in the con column. Knowing my distain for Mexican food, my closest friends inquired about how I was going to handle living in one of the Mexican food capitals of the country. Stubbornly, I insisted that I would educate my Phoenician friends-to-be to expand their foodie horizons beyond Taco Bell. Unexpectedly, my new neighbors introduced me to authentic Mexican cooking. None of the pseudo-Mexicano chain restaurant greasy glop for these folks. I learned that chile rellenos were stuffed with delicious picadillo or queso Oaxaca cheese, not Monterey Jack bulk purchased at Costco. As much as I enjoyed those shrimp cocktails from the 1960′s, I liked campechana’s better. I discovered pepita-crusted fish with a lovely and light jicama, orange and avocado salad. Who knew that guacamole that didn’t have the consistency of baby food? Even green chile burritos or salsa and chips, the McDonald’s of Mexican food, were evidence that fast food could be delicious. That Mexican cooking had such variety of styles, spices and flavors was a revelation to me. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been. Doesn’t Chinese have Cantonese, Szechuan, Mandarin and Hunan? Why did I not realize that our Latin American neighbors would have their regional specialties, too? Twenty years later, maybe I would find authentic Mexican food in Philly, too. But I’m guessing that America’s southwestern cities do it better simply because we have large populations of Hispanics who demand food that tastes like la madre used to make. We have five Ranch Markets, the mother of all Hispanic grocery stores. I’m just glad that they are willing to share with the ignorant, uneducated foodie’s like me.
Would you like to learn more about great gourmet gifts, wine accessories and kitchen gadgets? Jeanette Hauser is the founder of the third largest gift basket business in Phoenix, AZ. She has been a frequent guest on the radio, discussing gourmet gifts, restaurants and food related travel, and has been honored to be a judge at the International Fancy Food Show. Visit Anything Goes Gourmet for great discussions, gourmet gift suggestions, and free wine and food reports. Thank you Jeannette for sharing your cross-country foodie awakening with us!