“…The Chinese over there in China, they was all wantin’ to eat macaroni and cheese. Don’t you think that kind of odd, what with all the Chinese food they got?”
– From the movie Mystery Train
One of the joys of travel is to experience a favorite cuisine first-hand. Even the best ethnic restaurant seems to be missing something when compared to the same restaurants in a home country. But just as the above line from the classic film Mystery Trainindicates, no matter how incredible the cuisine, you’ll want something different every now and then.
For us, it’s Mexican food. No matter where we are, we want Mexican food. Because we live in Southern California, this need can be met pretty much any time of day or night – in just about any incarnation we desire. And I suspect that it’s the knowing that our easy access has been eliminated that makes the desire for just one little chile relleno that much stronger. Or why, when faced with an array of local beers (both new choices and old favorites), we suddenly crave Dos Equis.
The hardest thing that we’ve had to accept is that Mexican food hasn’t reached the worldwide saturation of, say, Chinese or Italian food. In many locations, it’s still exotic enough to be rare or interpreted rather strangely – much in the way that Chinese food was, um, transformed for the North American market. For example, the highly cuisine-conscious London has a smattering of Mexican restaurants (much to the dismay of expatriate friends) while Tokyo is home to an abundance of Mexican restaurants – with mixed (read: sometimes weird) results.
In fact, Tokyo pretty much represents the highs and lows of our Mexican food obsession. The lowest of the low came in the form of…gin margaritas. Well, we don’t have absolute confirmation that we were actually served gin, but being the trained professionals that we are (yes, we have credentials), we know for a fact that we were not drinking tequila, vodka wouldn’t have been so obvious, whiskey is sweeter…you get the picture. Luckily, the restaurant had a fine selection of Mexican beers, and the meal was saved by the timely intervention of our old friend, Dos Equis — ok, after choking down the truly horrible margaritas, we were willing to go that additional step and declare both the green and brown members of the Dos Equis family to be our best friends in the whole, wide world!!!
The high came after a most unpromising start. After hiking the streets of Tokyo, trusty map in hand, we finally locatedCasa Monnon. We wandered in, looked around, and started to worry. It didn’t look like a restaurant — in fact, a more accurate description would be a neighborhood bar with limited patronage. And the bartender was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and strumming a ukulele (normally, we take this as a positive sign — but at this point we were close to starving). We were disheartened, and handled the situation like the pros we are: we decided to have a drink while we decided what to do.
So we ordered margaritas…and they were made with tequila! Eventually, the bartender (ok, he was the owner, cook, bartender, entertainment) asked if we wanted food. We did. He told us that they didn’t really serve food, but he could fix us a little something. We accepted, assuming that we could have some chips, some salsa, finish our margaritas, and move on.
Our little something was incredible. As in really, really good Mexican food. Perfect enchiladas with green sauce. Tacos. Spicy. Food that made a mockery of so many of the other Mexican restaurants that we’d tried during our travels (the restaurant in Paris comes to mind: the only condiment in sight was a bottle of Heinz ketchup conspicuously placed on every table. What the hell is Salsa, anyway?). Food that made us wish our trip was longer so that we could work a second visit into our itinerary (we really did try, but one member of our party insisted that she must eat udon. Whatever.).
After we ate, we stuck around long enough to talk to our new friend and to learn that this meal wasn’t a fluke — our host had lived in Mexico (and the United States). He had studied the cuisine at the source, and understood the concept of the spices. Just as with any cuisine, it’s critical that the right seasonings are used with Mexican food. It’s not the same without that taste of chile or cilantro. Not necessarily a heavy-handed reminder, but more of a ephemeral thing. Just enough to enhance flavors, not mask them. Not too much, not too little.
Exactly the way Casa Monnon served it.
Afterward, we wandered slowly back into Roppongi, full and happy.