I grew up on the northwestern finger of East LA which means I've eaten more than my fair share of really good and really bad for you Mexican food. From sit down restaurants, to street taco cart vendors, to all-night sopes stands, my tummy gets rumbly just thinking about a triplet of $.99 carnitas taco with some raw radishes and pickled yellow chiles.
East LA kind of Mexican food.
Not to be confused with TexMex, or Baja Mex, or Connecticut Yankee-ketchup-with-chives-masquerading-as-salsa Mex.
In my small town, we're fortunate to have an honest to goodness family-run Mexican restaurant. While it's technically not a chain-type joint, there are a dozen or more of these restaurants sprinkled around the state -- all owned and operated by different members of the same big ol' Mexican family. How cool is that?
The food is decent, the portions are huge, and the place is always packed, but the menu has been tailored for the local consumer. This is good business sense, from a restauranteur point of view, however this also means there are very few surprises on the menu's offerings, and some of my favorites are AWOL.
What they do include along with the complimentary chips and salsa is something that I've found is served in almost every Mexican-themed restaurant I've eaten here in Oklahoma -- melted cheese dip, or queso as the locals call it.
Basically, it's a spicy, melted, velveety-like cheese product to be used for chip dipping, and tortilla spreading.
Now, don't get me wrong, this stuff is addicting and Okies love their Mexican food as evidenced by the abundance of restarants bearing names such as El Chico, Abuelo's, Chellino's, Maria's, Alvarado's, Serapio's, and Ted's (okay, what happened there? Maybe Ted is short for Teodoro).
But it's almost too much to deal with. Heck, give me a basket of chips, some salsa, this queso dip food product, and a plastic tortilla keeper full of "softies" -- my M-i-L's term for warmed, flour tortillas, and I don't need to order anything to get my munch on.
I'm not sure if the "queso" tradition is an Okie thing, a southwest thing, or anywhere-but-in-East-LA thing. But I'm sure it'll soon make it's way to my home turf, and pretty soon, King Taco and other all night taco stands on Whittier Blvd. will be dishing out cups of the stuff to gringo's asking for a side of "chips and cheese."