We’ve all done it. Maybe you fall victim to the ease of the order-and-go Boloco touch screen. Maybe you walk past one Chipotle Grill too many on your way home from work. Maybe you occasionally drop into a lapse of cultural retardation and believe that Qdoba is, in fact, Mexican food. In a city as lacking in affordable authentic Mexican cuisine as Boston, the occasional burrito slip up is inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Throw away your Boloco card because there is hope in sight! I spent last week in Mexico and I have come up with a few rules of thumb that will steer you clear from any restaurant that offers “muchos nachos” or makes you wear a sombrero while you attempt to enjoy your meal.
1. Burritos should not be on the menu.
To Mexicans, a dry tortilla means something is seriously wrong. The fat, rice filled, tin foil wrapped American version of a traditional Mexican meal is not only unrealistic but highly unappetizing once you’ve tasted the real thing. Look for enchiladas soaked in a habanero, mole, or salsa verde sauce instead. These sauces soften the tortilla and keep whatever’s inside juicy and delicious. Also, Mexicans are right about leaving the rice on the side. Why take up valuable tortilla space with a wad of bland starch when you could fill it with a mound of marinated pulled pork or some freshly whipped guacamole?
2. Look for “Cotija” or “Queso Fresco”.
I’m not sure what sort of miserable soul invented nacho cheese, but they deserve the same painful fate as the asshole that invented nachos. Neither of these things resembles anything you would actually find on a Mexican menu. In fact, the closest thing to nacho cheese I came across in Mexico were the Kraft Singles I bought at the convenience store on my way home from Señor Frog’s, which I later used to make a rather successful triple-decker grilled cheese sandwich.
Real Mexican food is topped either with a dusting of Cotija, which is like a Mexican version of Parmesan, or a sprinkle of Queso Fresco, which is a crumbly white cheese that looks like feta but doesn’t have the same saltiness.
3. It shouldn’t burn your tonsils out.
Although Mexicans do cook with lots of peppers, they are generally broiled or cooked over an open flame and are not as spicy as you’d think. Often times, habaneros (which are extremely hot when eaten raw) are cooked, the seeds are removed (that’s where the heat lives), and what’s left is pureed into a smooth sauce used in salsas and spooned over entrees. Leave the jalepeño slices for the amateurs. You’ll thank me later.
4. Beware the flour tortilla.
While flour tortillas are used in the north, most of Mexico has remained true to the traditional corn tortilla, made with maize (like a super fine version of cornmeal) and water, and smashed between metal plates into the flat, round shape we’re familiar with. Corn tortillas shouldn’t look perfect. If it’s thicker than you’re used to and has jagged edges, it’s home made. As for flour, they should be huge, steamed, and almost translucent.
5. Beef is never the be all to end all on an authentic Mexican menu.
Beef, found mostly in northern Mexico, is not as plentiful as taco bell makes it out to be. In fact, most of Mexico’s cattle are imported. It is for this reason that they mostly cure their beef or eat it sparingly in dishes such as Carne Asada, a thin, grilled flank steak often topped with peppers, onions, or salsa fresca. Next time you go out for Mexican food, be daring and try something else like pork, fish, or chorizo, which are much more typically Mexican and will probably be much more worth your money in the end.
Here are some of my favorite authentically Mexican restaurants in Boston that follow all the rules. Don’t let the plastic chairs fool you, these the best of the best.
Habañero Mexican Grill
166 Brighton Ave, Allston
Almost everything you order here is served on a platter and accompanied by all the sides you could ever ask for. Not only is the food just like real Mexican food, but the prices are, too. I ordered a whole fish, which came with rice, beans, sliced vegetables, and tortillas for only $10. And when I say “whole fish” I really mean it—eyeballs and all.
Rosticeria Cancun 2
145 Meridian St, Boston
This restaurant in East Boston is the younger brother of their first hole in the wall joint, which burned down in a tragic kitchen fire a few years ago. The new restaurant serves the same base menu as Rosticeria Cancun 1 did, but they have now added many more menu items such as soups, salads, and alcohol. The tortillas are hand made, as is just about everything at this restaurant. The owner has been cooking Mexican cuisine since he was fourteen years old and it definitely shows.
Taqueria El Carrizal
254 Brighton Ave, Allston
Okay, okay, okay! So they have nachos on the menu *shudder*. But that does not mean you have to order them. Try one of their “Typical Plates” like the Combinacion Mexicana, which offers a sampling of Mexican items, or the Enchiladas Verdes, which are topped with a deliciously tart green salsa.
401 Harvard St, Brookline
There is possibly nothing more quintessentially Baja than fish tacos. Though they are hard to come by in Boston, Dorado is one place I constantly return to that does them right. Beer battered and fried or simply grilled, the fish tacos at Dorado are consistently cooked to perfection. They need nothing more than a tiny spoonful of salsa fresca and some pickled onions on top. When the fried fish is this good on its own, why mess with it? Go in for $1.99 Ensenada taco day (Wednesdays after 3:00) and top it all off with some home made sangria.
30 Gloucester St, Boston
For those of you who enjoy a bit more ambiance with your enchiladas, Casa Romero is a more upscale but still authentic restaurant located in Back Bay. The walls are decorated with Aztec art and the rooms are dimly lit by candles and punched metal lanterns. Atmosphere does not get in the way, however. The food is very traditional and prepared as it has been done historically in Mexico for centuries.