A Fine Swine
"It would be an exaggeration to say that modern Mexican cooking is Aztec cooking plus pigs," notes Mexican-food expert Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, "but the statement is not far out of line." That's because, despite pork's important role in so many contemporary Mexican dishes, the pig had to be dragged--kicking and squealing, most likely--into the Aztec-ruled country by the Spanish in 1519. Before that, Mexican fare relied primarily on beans and corn, and sometimes turkey or seafood, slow-cooked along with chiles and chocolate into a one-dish meal.
Thankfully, Cortes and the rest of his rotten bunch had the decency to offer something in return for their ruthless routing; otherwise, we wouldn't be able to pig out today on such treats as posole, chorizo, chile verde and carnitas, to name just a few. In addition to the other white meat, the pig's introduction gave native Mexicans another crucial ingredient--lard, without which there would be no fried tortilla chips (if you've never had chips dunked in freshly rendered pork lard, your arteries may be clear, but you really haven't lived), no refried beans, no chiles rellenos, no taquitos. Nor would there be any fried sauces; in Mexico, most sauces do a turn in a huge ceramic cazuela that looks like a wok handcrafted by Martha Stewart; a brief fry in a little bit of oil is what separates gringo takes on Mexican sauces from the real thing. Frying the sauce in oil--or lard, which is still used in many Mexican kitchens--rids it of that raw-chile sting and adds depth. Without this additional step, most Mexican sauces would have the same biting bitterness as Italian sauces made with undercooked garlic.
Although you wouldn't know it from most of the Mexican restaurants around here, frying food in oil doesn't necessarily make it taste greasy or fatty. For proof, stop by La Pasadita Inn. This tiny, tidy eatery serves clean, fresh, casual Mexican meals that are light on grease but packed with flavor.
La Pasadita, which translates loosely as "little passageway," is a common name for restaurants located at busy corners in Mexico--and an apt description for this place, since the restaurant occupies an island bounded by a four-way intersection. And inside, the food clears the way for a new appreciation of Mexican cuisine. Credit owner Jose Luis Guereca's mama with the recipes he and his sister, Julia, have been turning out so well; credit mama's two offspring with the hard work that keeps this place cooking.
Jose Luis and Julia--both of whom moved to the United States from Durango, Mexico, ten years ago--opened the restaurant last June; they slave from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. making everything from scratch, including some of the most delectable tamales ($1.25 each) I've found on either side of the border. The key to the tamales? "Pork," answers Guereca simply. And the pork was indeed admirable--tender all the way through, with none of the tough strands often found in lesser tamales. But it wasn't just the meat that made these great. The coating of masa dough was so thin that the filling wasn't overwhelmed by the corn, allowing a slight chile bite to break through.
Guereca not only cooks, he waits tables and buses them, too. Somehow he found the time to keep bringing more chips and his thin, cilantro-invigorated salsa; somehow we managed to tear ourselves away from the chips and salsa long enough to try a taco ($4.25) sided by steaming rice and beans. The taco was filled with beef so highly seasoned it glowed orange and carried a soft, fresh-chile kick, as well as more standard taco stuffings: shredded cheddar, lettuce, diced tomatoes and onions, all of which tasted as though they had been cut only moments before--and cut properly, with a sharp knife so that nothing appeared bruised or squished. The refried beans seemed freshly fried, too, with none of that dull, blobby look that indicates canned or old beans. And even the rice had been sprinkled with fresh cilantro and kissed by lime juice.
More rice and beans came with the stuffed sopaipilla ($5.95), but the huge, puffy, deep-fried pastry hardly needed their support. It was bursting with beef, more beans, cheese, lettuce and tomato, all smothered with Guereca's garlic-heavy red chile and topped with another helping of cheese. Finishing it was out of the question, but we gave it our best shot.
A week later, when we finally were hungry again, we returned to La Pasadita with a few friends, determined to eat our way through the rest of the small menu. Unlike many Mexican eateries that fill out their rosters with dozens of combination platters, Guereca's place offers only ten, along with four burritos, three huevos dishes and a superb steak ranchero ($6.50). The beef chunks had been marinated with jalapenos and lemon juice, then sauteed with tomatoes, onions and additional chiles. More like a stew than a just-tossed concoction, the steak ranchero boasted well-fused flavors, including a mellowed jalapeno heat.
Guereca's green chile was another perfect meld. All too often around town, green chiles rely heavily on tomatoes, which are less labor-intensive than the traditional tomatillos (which must be peeled) but also less flavorful. La Pasadita's pork-based version, however, was almost all tomatillos, merely touched with tomato to sweeten it up a bit, and simmered with just the right amount of jalapenos for punch. The chile verde plate ($5.25) brought a generous pool of chile, pumped up with big chunks of juicy pork and served with refried beans and rice. More green chile smothered an order of chiles rellenos ($5.95), two egg-white-washed poblanos stuffed with Monterey Jack and fried until the peppers had become pliable but not mushy.
Good as the green was, the red chile came close. We tried it on a pork burrito ($3), a flour tortilla packed with moist meat, then sampled it again on the huevos rancheros ($4.50), two over-easy eggs with still more beans and rice. The scrambled eggs with chorizo ($4.50) featured GYereca's excellent homemade pork sausage, tart from a vinegar marinade, spicy from pasilla peppers and nicely spiced with allspice. This guy knows his swine.
You'll go hog wild for it, too.
La Pasadita Inn, 1959 Park Avenue, 832-1785. Hours: 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
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