Food

There’s More Than Tacos at the Taco Stand

I’ll have to admit that, when I first arrived here, I was a little wary of the taco stands. I’ve since learned that a trip to a taco stand can spice up your taste buds, if not your life.

Maybe you’re intimidated, like I was, because you’re not sure about the cleanliness, what to order, how to order it, and how to eat it without embarrassing yourself.

Frankly, I’m more intimidated by the menu and food at Taco Bell.

The best way to find a good taco stand is to follow the locals. Generally, their concerns about quality and food safety are the same as yours. If you see lines waiting to order and be served, most likely its product and reputation are good.

Most foreigners stick to tacos at the taco stand. They probably don’t realize there’s a lot more variety available. Did you know you can order items like quesadillas, gringas, campachenas, vampiros, or tortas? Sounds confusing? Don’t worry. All of these concoctions are variations on a theme.

So let’s introduce you to all these yummy choices starting with tacos as made in this area of Jalisco. Mexico is a very diverse country, and there are lots of regional and family variations.

Everything Corn Tortillas

Tacos here are made with soft corn tortillas, warmed on the grill, and filled with a meat of your  choice. The meat is cooked on the grill and chopped before it’s heaped on a waiting tortilla.

Taco meats and tortillas on the grill; fillings are on the table to the left

The meats are mostly beef (res), chorizo sausage, and pork (puerco, carnaza, and adobada). More exotic are tacos de cabeza that use all the parts of a pig’s head from ears, tongue and lips to eyeballs and more.

If you add grilled cheese to your taco, you have a campachena. It’s a few more calories, but the cheese adds a gooey surprise. Vampiros are like mini tostados. In this case, the corn tortilla is allowed to crisp on the grill until the sides curl up into a little cup. The cup is filled with cheese and meat and heated until the cheese melts. These delicious morsels are not to be mistaken with the pink drink of the same name.

Foreigners are familiar with tacos dorados or barbacoa found at the tianguis or on the plaza on Sundays.  These start with stewed meat that is put into a tortilla, folded over and crisped on the grill until golden.

Pork and onion layers with pineapple for making tacos al pastor

Tacos el pastor are cooked on a vertical spit like gyros. Thin slices of pork are layered on the spit with onions and pineapple and their juices flavor the meat as it cooks. The cooked meat is sliced off.

You can add an array of condiments to your taco. Usually they include chopped cilantro and onion, radishes, cabbage or lettuce, beans, an assortment of pickled vegetables, and of course the ubiquitous salsas of various heat. It will come as no surprise that a few tacos can make a filling meal.

Tortas

If you want to venture further afield, a good bet is to order a torta. Tortas are grilled sandwiches made with rolls (bolillos). The rolls are smeared with crema and toasted on the grill with shredded cheese. The cheese melts into the bread, and meat of your choice is spooned on top. When you add condiments to your torta, you have a feast. And the experience in your mouth is magical. The combination of tastes is much greater than the sums of the individual ingredients.

In this part of Mexico, you see road signs everywhere for tortas ahogadas. They’re a little bit different – a Mexican version of a pulled pork sandwich found up north. They’re made with chopped carnitas, pork that’s generally cooked in vats of fat until it falls apart. The chopped pork is heaped on a roll and doused in thin gravy.

Quesadillas and Gringas

Quesadillas can be found on the menus of many North American restaurants. Most taco stands here can make them. They’re made with flour tortillas, filled with cheese, folded over and grilled until the tortilla is crisp and the cheese is runny. If you put chicken, meat, or shrimp in them they become gringas (which is also the name of a female North American).

Are you still intimidated? Armed with this information, you should be able to navigate most taco stands.

But, if you’re still not sure what to do, just observe what the locals do, follow their lead, most of all have fun. Buen provecho!

Pizza Partisans

They say that there are two things that expats should never discuss in social situations…politics and religion. So, if we find ourselves in unknown company, it’s always wise to avoid such conversations, if for no other reason than to keep your friends. After all one of the reasons why many of us moved abroad was to escape the politics that are poisoning the U.S.

A recent event prompted me to dust off my rusty computer keyboard to propose a third verboten topic…PIZZA!

I was sitting with a group of people having breakfast at the plaza when the conversation turned to pizza and the establishments that make it here in town. The group started to talk about one particular place. In my foolishness, I chimed in that I thought the quality of that establishment had gone down. A woman at the table became physically agitated, and almost jumped out of her chair to challenge the notion.

You would have thought I had thrown a fire bomb on the table; Or that I told a Republican that Donald Trump is a Russian agent; Or told a Democrat that Barak Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery.

Whoa! I was taken aback — so much so that my chair almost toppled over backwards. Suddenly, this woman told me in no uncertain terms that the quality was the same if not better, and then challenged me to state the reasons for my opinion. No matter how hard I tried, my reasons weren’t good enough for the pizza partisan. She had developed pizza derangement syndrome!

Let’s face it, tastes in food are personal – especially pizza. I even wrote a blog post and an article for Ojo del Lago, a monthly magazine where I live in Mexico, about why I don’t like Lima Beans. Regardless of the best efforts of friends to change my mind, I still hate them.

So, what is pizza? In the New York area they sometimes call it a tomato pie. Dean Martin referred to the moon as a “pizza pie.” It’s a simple food with a baked yeast crust on the bottom and toppings on top. In Chicago, they make it in a pan with a baking soda crust. It has become a universal food, to which the Italians may claim its origins, but not its various regional and personal incarnations. Pizza knows no international borders. Its enjoyment isn’t limited to any racial, ethnic, political, or religious group. Even vegetarians and meat lovers can share its pleasures. And, you can feel “safe” that probably no one has ever been accused of cultural appropriation for eating pizza.

In the past thirty years, the north American population has been introduced to a myriad of different pizza varieties. Gone are the days when the pizza that your neighborhood pizza parlor made was good enough. I remember when people, especially in Italian neighborhoods, would argue over whether Neopolitan or Sicilian was better. Today we have crispy crust, thin crust, medium crust, Sicilian thick crust, Chicago style, fancy focaccia, Stouffers French Bread Pizza, Tostinos Pizza Rolls, lamajeun, flat bread, and I’m sure I missed some.

Everybody has their favorite style and favorite toppings. Even Dominoes in the U.S. has thrown in the towel, and now offers a selection of four different types of crust…one for (almost) every taste.

There are some absolutists when it comes to food, and it’s often because of regional preferences, or what they remember eating when they were younger. While I’ve seen plenty of Mexicans put ketchup on pizza, you’ll never convince a Neapolitan that it’s OK. And likewise, you’ll never convince a native New Yorker that ketchup belongs on a hot dog.

But, you may like your pizza or hot dog with ketchup. Who am I to tell you you’re wrong? At the risk of getting the dander up on the backs of pizza partisans reading this, I confess that I’ve never understood mixing pineapple with ham on a pizza…heresy! That combination belongs at a luau or Easter dinner. And, thank goodness no one has thought to top a pizza with lima beans!

When all is said and done, we’re lucky that there’s no lack of pizza options at Lakeside. Whatever you like, you have a choice.

As for the pizza place that I said has seen better days, I still buy pizza there. I like that style of pizza.

Holiday Cooking Challenges

One of the biggest cooking challenges when you live in a foreign country is finding the right ingredients to make the things you did before. Normally it’s not that important to me. Since I moved to Mexico, I do very little cooking. Most of the time, it’s cheaper to eat out – especially for dinner.

When I do cook, however, I often need to be creative in my selection of ingredients. In Mexico they don’t use many ingredients we use north of the border. Likewise, there are many ingredients here that are quite interesting that we never see up north. Very often, I need to find a reasonable substitute.

There’s a supermarket up the street called Super Lake that carries almost anything you are familiar with in the U.S. and Canada. If you insist on using the American brands, you’ll pay a premium.

When it comes to holidays, everyone has their favorite foods. For Thanksgiving and Christmas here, turkeys abound, and spiral hams are popular. There are sweet potatoes and cranberries, string beans, peas, corn, brussel sprouts, packaged stuffing for the turkey, and even pumpkin for pies.

Potatoes, however, are problematic. Most of the year, the only potatoes you can get here make poor mashed potatoes. The first time I made them they turned out like wallpaper paste, and were impossible to clean up afterwards if you let them dry (and even if you didn’t). During this season, we can be thankful that there are a few stores that carry russet potatoes which make a much better version of mashed potatoes.

This year I was invited to a pot-luck Christmas dinner. I decided to bring a modern family favorite. When growing up, mashed yellow turnips were a part of Thanksgiving dinner. My ex and I found a new way to use turnips in the 1993 Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appetit magazine. We discovered a recipe for a root vegetable casserole that combined mashed potatoes, turnips, and parsnip that was a hit – even with people who didn’t like turnips (see the featured picture at the top). It’s been part of Thanksgiving dinner ever since.

Mexican White Turnip called Nabo

Mexican White Turnip called Nabo

I had three challenges in finding the ingredients to make it here. First, I needed to find russet potatoes. Second, there are no yellow turnips here. But at least there is a mild white turnip, called Nabo. Third, there are no parsnips here.

For substitutes, I wanted to get the orange color of the yellow turnips and the spiciness of parsnips. So, I pureed cooked carrots and added ground allspice.

The original recipe ingredients are directly below, and my Mexican version follows. The cooking instructions are basically the same with differences noted.

Root Vegetable Casserole

Original Version

Mexican Version

7 cups canned low-salt chicken broth

3 lbs. russet potato (1.5” pieces)

1.5 lbs. rutabaga (1/2” pieces)

1.25 lbs. parsnip (1.5” pieces)

8 garlic cloves

1 bayleaf

1 tsp. thyme

3 large onion thinly sliced

¾ cup (1.5 sticks) butter at room temperature

Salt and pepper

7 cups canned low-salt chicken broth

1.5 Kilo russet potato (1.5” pieces)

.75 Kilo. Nabo (1/2” pieces)

2 large carrots (diced)

8 garlic cloves

1 bayleaf

1 tsp. thyme

¼ tsp. ground allspice

3 large onion thinly sliced

170 grams butter at room temperature

Salt and pepper

Directions:

Butter 13”x9”x2” glass baking dish

In Mexican version only, put 1.5 cups of chicken broth in a small pot with the carrots. Bring pot to boil, reduce to simmer until carrots are tender. Transfer carrots to a blender and puree. Add remaining broth to large pot below

In a large pot put first 7 ingredients

Bring pot to boil, reduce to simmer until veggies are tender (approx. 30 minutes)

Transfer veggies and pureed carrots to a bowl

Add 1 stick (approx. 100 grams) of butter to bowl

Beat until mashed but not chunky (a Kitchenaid mixer with large paddle works well)

Season mixture with salt and pepper

Melt remaining butter in a large skillet on medium heat.

Saute onions until lightly browned. Reduce heat to medium low and continue for 15 minutes

Season onions with salt and pepper.

Spoon root vegetable mixture into the prepared baking dish and smooth.

Distribute onions evenly over the vegetables

Reheat casserole for 20 minutes before serving

Buen provecho!

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends, and sign up at the top of the sidebar to follow my blog and get emails whenever I post.

Party in the Streets

Wow! Last night there was a party in Ajijic. It’s a party that happens once a year celebrating the town’s patron saint, San Andres. Raul, a waiter in a restaurant, asked me if I was going. I wasn’t planning on it, but on his suggestion, I wandered on up to the plaza to check it out.

plaza-1-2

ferris-wheel-2

The plaza was alive, teaming with people. Vendors, I had never seen before set up shop around the plaza. Almost every kind of Mexican snack food was available hot dogs hamburgers, tacos, tamales, peanuts, garbanzos, cut up fruits and cooked vegetable, cookies, cakes, ice cream, beer, soda, tequila.

The noise was deafening. Amusement rides blocked Calle Colon, and loud speakers boomed carnival music. Bands played on a big stage and on every corner, as well as in the restaurants –  mariachis, bandas, and even folk musicians. After I left, I know there would be firecrackers in the church courtyard. No Mexican fiesta would be complete without them!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Moms and dads held their children’s hands, carried babies, and pushed strollers. Lovers also held hands and danced to the music. The restaurants and food stands were full, and hundred just sat and walked around socializing.

When I first arrived in Ajijic two years ago, I lived within walking distance of the plaza. I attended my first San Andres and wrote about it here. Although I couldn’t capture the sound, which is half the experience of being there, I took a few photos to share.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends, and sign up at the top of the sidebar to follow my blog and get emails whenever I post.

In Defense of Lima Beans

Oxymoron?

As far as I’m concerned, there is no defense of lima beans. And believe me, I’m not very concerned.

But I needed something to write about, and the idea for this subject popped into my head. I’m sure this post will leave a bad taste in the mouths of some of my readers who like lima beans. And some of you might be thinking that to choose a topic like this, there must not have been too much in my head to begin with.

You see, I don’t hate many things in this world. Hate’s a very strong word. But, in no uncertain terms, I hate lima beans. My ex even got me a “hates lima bean” tee shirt once by artist and cartoonist Hal Mayforth. I contacted Hal to get the image, but it he couldn’t get to it. So, I found the above image from a blog called Deep Friar.

When I told several friends about this blog’s topic, they tried to convince me that, with the right recipe, I could transform lima beans into a wonderful dish. Sorry folks. That’s like saying you can remove the taste of liver by bathing it in something like hot fudge sauce, or the sliminess of Okra by disguising it in a bowl of curry, or change the funky taste of Papaya by mixing it with strawberries.

Just think of the food you detest the most. Then think of the food you love the most. Would you risk ruining the latter by mixing it with the former? I remember when I was a kid and sick. The doctor told my mom to mix aspirin with apple sauce or Hershey’s chocolate syrup. For years, I could eat neither. I’ve never known why someone would want to ruin a perfectly good ear of corn by mixing its kernels with lima beans. I guess that’s why they call it “suck”-a-tash.

I have nothing against most types of beans. I’ll eat fava beans, navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, green beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, cannellini and more. I’ll eat barbecued baked beans, refried beans, cassoulet, chili with beans, black beans with rice, chana, minced pork with fermented black beans, dim sum filled with sweet bean paste, and roasted garbanzos from a street vendor in Chapala.

Unfortunately, there is an odd combination of flavor and texture that makes lima beans thoroughly objectionable to my pallet.

I’m pretty sure lima beans were put on earth to teach little kids how to turn up their noses. Or maybe to show them that no matter how bad calves liver tastes, there’s something else on the planet that tastes worse.

They never tell little kids that there are laws against cruel and unusual punishment. Kids shouldn’t have to make a tortured decision about whether to eat their lima beans or go to bed without dessert. I can just see some disgruntled thirteen year old pulling out the cell phone that their parents bought them and reporting them to “children’s services” for the dinner table equivalent of water-boarding.

But, a lot of us were told that we should eat all of the food on our plates because there were starving children in China. I never understood how gagging on food at the table would help anyone. And I never thought, at the time, to try retorting, “Jeez mom, if you want me to eat everything on my plate, please don’t put lima beans on it…and how about calf’s liver too. Just send the stuff straightaway to China.”

By the way have you ever seen lima beans on a Chinese restaurant menu? I think the Chinese are  an advanced civilization and passed on lima beans to us folk in the western hemisphere centuries ago.

Those early humans who came across the ice bridge from Asia tens of thousands of years ago were probably given sacks of lima bean seeds with the instructions not to bring them back. They probably then burned the lima bean fields and planted Bok Choy instead. Anyway, how do you think places like Lima, Peru or Lima, Ohio got their names? You didn’t know they had Chinese roots, did you?

Finally, there’s probably some person at NSA, who likes lima beans and will discover this post and flag it for subversive thoughts. I can just see myself, the next time I go back to the states, meeting with some gnarly customs agent, who after scanning his computer screen, turns toward me with an inquisitive look and says, “Are you the guy who wrote the blog post about lima beans?

I’ll look back at him in incredulity and nervously whimper, “Yeah?”

Then he’ll activate his walkie-talkie and call for back-up. As two tough-looking agents arrive and put me in hand-cuffs, he’ll inform them with pride, “We got him…the lima bean guy.”

They’ll lead me off to some room in the bowels of the airport, open the door, sit me down at a table, and undo my handcuffs. Then with broad smiles, they’ll watch as another agent walks into the room and puts a bowl of lima beans in front of me, and says, “Now, eat your lima beans. You’re not going home ‘til they’re all gone.”

I’m sure that this blog post has tested your patience, especially if you’re a lima bean fan. And I’m sure my ex will leave a comment for the second time in two years that says something like “Now, I’m sure you’ve lost your mind.” You can find the first post here.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends, and sign up at the top of the sidebar to follow my blog and get emails whenever I post.

Thank you to Deep Friar, whoever you are, for the very appropriate image.

Visitors from the North

I haven’t posted in a long time. December 9 to be exact.

I’ve had the privilege of having guest for two weeks… a good friend and my two kids. My friend from Boston is considering spending several wintery months in the friendlier climes of Lake Chapala. It was fun showing her around.

My kids endured another week with their dad dragging them from one hang-out filled with old fogeys to the next. Thanks to a friend who allowed us to use her condo, they also got to dip their toes in the Pacific at Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta Sunset2

Puerto Vallarta beach1

For dad, at any rate, it was a special time. There is something special about interacting with your kids as adults. Especially when you haven’t seen them in 5 months. It takes a long time (that passes very quickly) until everyone can spend time together without the drama associated with growing up…at least some of the drama.

Puerto Vallarta beach2

Puerto Vallarta Sunset1

Dad is still concerned. The kids still roll their eyes and moan “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

But this time, my daughter actually asked me advice about financial matters instead of me doling it out unsolicited.

Hah! We have progress.

While I know more about financial stuff now than before my divorce, I was taken a-back. She wants to save. Good for her!

“Do you have an emergency fund?” I asked her.

“What’s that?” she asked me.

“It’s having enough money so, if something happens to you or you lose your job, you can pay your bills until you find a new one. You should have at least 3 months and possibly more depending on your obligations.” I counseled her.

We talked about her assets and expenses and then I suggested, “When you’ve funded your emergency fund, let’s have another talk,” I continued. “And besides, with the volatility in the stock and bond markets, it may just be a good idea to stay liquid in cash.”

So, on a Sunday morning two weeks ago my kids journeyed back up north. We all left for the airport at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am so they could make their 6:15 flight. Apparently, they had a problem with a prick in DFW customs who almost made them miss their connecting flight.

After a week and a half of guests, being alone feels good…maybe a little empty, but good. I spent the day doing domestic things like laundry, making beds, and, yes, making another yummy meal from leftovers in the refrigerator. After a gin and tonic and a few glasses of cheap Chilean wine with dinner, and an absolutely incredible sunset on my mirador, I find myself at the computer writing to you good people.

Quick Mahi-Mahi for Tuesday’s Dinner

It was Tuesday afternoon, and my mind started to work on the dinner “problem.” Hamburgers or fish – what am I going to have for dinner this evening. I had some rice and beans leftovers which I needed to eat before they started growing fur. I had several ideas.

Tuesday is one of those nights that I’m more apt to cook at home than go out. At 4:00 pm, I get in my car, intent on going to Walmart and picking up some ground beef. Normally, I’d walk up the street to Tony’s Meat Market. Unfortunately, Tony’s was on vacation until the next day. And the Costa Alegre Fish Market closes at 4:00 pm.

As I’m driving past the fish market, I noticed that they were still open. So I did a quick left turn and parked the car. Thank my lucky stars, they were waiting on a person whom, I’m sure, they thought was their last customer for the day. Not so fast!

I knew what I wanted, Mahi-Mahi. The fishmonger dug a bag out of the fridge that he’d already put away for the night. Scoring a half pound for a cool $US2.50, I left and went home to put it in the fridge.

At 7:00 pm, I started cooking. By 7:40 I had a feast before me. Along with the Mahi-Mahi which I prepared in a Veracruz style (with a little chipotle added to wake up the taste buds), I had the left over black beans which I’d doctored and a yellow Mexican-style rice.

It was yummy, so I thought I’d share the recipe with you.

Ingredients for the fish:

  • ½ pound of Mahi-Mahi
  • Rub for fish – a pinch of this and a dash of that to include salt, pepper, paprika, oregano, cumin, U.S. style chili powder
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 1 TBS unsalted butter

Ingredients for sauce:

  • 1 small tomato, chopped
  • ¼ cup Poblano chili, diced small
  • ¼ cup onion, diced small
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 1 tsp chipotle chile en adobo, chopped
  • ¼ juicy lime
  • 1 TBSP cilantro, chopped

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Wash and dry fish
  2. Coat fish with rub
  3. Heat olive oil and butter in frying pan over medium heat
  4. Add coated fish and cook until done turning as needed
  5. Remove fish to a plate
  6. Add the poblano chili, onions and garlic and sauté until soft
  7. Add chopped tomatoes and chipotle chilis and cook until tomatoes start to break down
  8. Squeeze lime into sauce
  9. Add ½ chopped cilantro
  10. Saute for ½ minute
  11. Spoon over fish
  12. Sprinkle remaining cilantro over fish and accompaniments

This recipe makes enough for one hungry person or two after an hour of downing appetizers.

Surprisingly, when I made this, the chipotles weren’t that spicy in the sauce. Either it’s time to buy a new can, or up the amount.

Buen aprovecho!

Road Trip 10: Driving South of the (U.S.) Border

I always get anxiety when I cross borders. This day was no different. Maybe it was time I got shaken down at a god-forsaken desert border crossing entering Peru 40 years ago. Thankfully, I haven’t had any problems since.

It was still dark when I left the hotel in Cotulla, grabbed breakfast at McDonalds, and filled the car’s gas tank. The gas station, right off I-35 was a sea of white pick-up trucks with equipment filling their cargo beds. Their drivers were filling their coolers with ice, preparing for another day in the oil patch. I too, topped my tank with “cheap” American gas. Gas in Mexico runs about 13.5 pesos/liter or $3.20/gallon.

I decided to cross into Mexico at the new Columbia Bridge about 20 miles north of Laredo. I had heard that crossing there was easier than in town, especially with a car. Because I was traveling about 700 miles into Mexico, my car needed a visa too. The visa is a sticker that you’re supposed to put in the center of the windshield below the mirror. It is coterminous with your immigration visa.

Columbia Bridge border crossing. Mexico is at top of photo. Notice the traffic!

Columbia Bridge border crossing. Mexico is at top of photo. Notice the traffic!

Just like my friends said, the border crossing was easy. I arrived on the Mexican side around 8:45 and was out by 9:15. It was a ghost town. There was no line and only two gringos, including me, getting permits for their vehicles. I got my passport stamped and paid for my car permit. The custom agents, however, were like the Maytag repairmen with not much to do. So, they checked my car and asked me to take out some boxes from the trunk to check. After rummaging through a few boxes of household goods and my suitcase, they decided I was indeed moving my belongings to Lake Chapala.

“Are you driving all that way alone?” One officer disbelievingly asked. I replied in the affirmative, and he shook his head obviously thinking I was nuts.

Relieved, I drove through what seemed an endless road of truck terminals and warehouses, eventually meeting up with Federal Route 85 south of Nuevo Laredo. This highway would eventually take me to Monterrey, where I would head west almost to Saltillo, and then south again.

The toll road south of Nuevo Laredo. Just blue skies and me.

The toll road south of Nuevo Laredo. Just blue skies and me.

Approaching the mountains just north of Monterrey, Mexico

Approaching the mountains just north of Monterrey, Mexico

Driving on the highways in Mexico isn’t much different than in the States – with one exception. Passing. As with most rules of the road in Mexico, they’re suggestions. If you’re passing, oncoming vehicles will generally move to their right to give you more passing room, especially where there’s a shoulder. If you’re overtaking a car going in the same direction, they will generally move to the right too. On 2-lane roads double yellow lines fall into the “suggestion” category. You never know what might be around the next bend.

As you can see from the posted pictures, my first exposure to Mexican roads was the equivalent to an American interstate highway or improved 4-lane highway. I was able to cruise most of the time at 80 mph, and was passed by Mexicans and Gringos as if I were standing still. For most of the trip, passing wasn’t a problem. Of course, there are always exceptions like steep hills with a line of tractor trailers and tandems inching their ways to the top of the grade. Yes Virginia, it is possible to pass a truck going 10 mph safely where there’s a double yellow line.

Mexico is a beautiful country. Once I got about 50 miles south of Nuevo Larado, the Mexican countryside seemed to open up with broad expanses of desert landscape outline with sierra in the far distance. What I learned was that about every 100 miles the scenery changed from desert to canyons to steep valleys back to desert to farmland. For miles the mountains ringed the road, sometimes close and sometimes far into the distance.

I was told to stay on the toll-roads, called Cuotas, as much as possible. Not only were they safer, better maintained, and limited access, but your toll entiled you to free roadside assistance, should you need it from the “Green Angels.”

Roadside Mexican town south of Matehuala early in the morning

Roadside Mexican town south of Matehuala early in the morning

An occasional Mexican roadside village lined the non-toll roads (Libre). They all look the same whether in Qintana Roo, Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, or Jalisco. They were generally dusty congregations of buildings lining the highway – mom and pop restaurants, garages, assorted retail establishments, and the ubiquitous Pemex station.

That first night in Mexico, I stopped at a hotel in a town called Matehuala with a restaurant. It had been recommended by friends, and was about halfway to Lake Chapala from the border. Arriving around 4:00 pm, I took advantage of the short day to enjoy a beer, and an early dinner.

On the road early the next day, the sun was just coming up over the mountains to the east. You could see fog hanging in the valleys providing a white contrast the changing colors of the mountains –purple, red, green. Matisse would have found inspiration.

Cliffs north of the 2-lane toll road west of San Luis Potosi

Cliffs north of the 2-lane toll road west of San Luis Potosi

I bypassed the city of San Luis Potosi, and once again the scenery changed. Huge cliffs rose to the right of the cuota that reminded me of pictures of Utah. It appeared to be great climbing country. Over a few more mountains and through good sized Mexican town, and I was on the outskirts of Guadalajara – just a hop, skip, and jump from home.

But this part of the trip would be the scariest. The southeast end of the circumferential road – the pereferico – merged into the road I needed to take to Lake Chapala. But, it was going the wrong way – toward Guadalajara. The exit had a bus stop and gas station on either side of it so it made it very messy trying to merge into the traffic. It was pretty hairy negotiating entry between busses leaving the bus stop, cars and trucks cruising along the highway, and cars merging into traffic from the gas station.

This sort of intersection happens a lot around Guad. You need to merge going the wrong direction and travel a-ways until you come to a Retorno where you either cross over or under the highway to go the other way. I was pretty close to the airport, and knew that a retorno would come up soon. A half mile later I traveled up and over the highway and found myself going in the right direction. With two major highways coming together, you’ve gotta wonder why they didn’t just build the retorno at the end of the pereferico so you could merge either direction.

It was late lunch time, and I had been saving my appetite for burritos. There’s a Guadalajara institution on the road to Chapala just before you go over the mountains that rim the lake. It’s open 24 hours. All the Mexicans know about it and a few gringos too. I was introduced to it on my trip to Ajijic, by the guy who picked me up at the airport. This would be the first time there since then.

The place is like a cafeteria with indoor and seating. You go through the line where a steam table holds a dozen or more burrito fillings – beef, chicken, pork, veggie, spicy and mild. The server takes a flour tortilla, smears it with refried beans, puts a mound of whatever filling suits your fancy, and rolls it up. You then pick-up a soda, beer, or water at the checkout. It’s all good, cheap, and filling.

Home! Just over the hill.

Home! Just over the hill.

Fortified from a couple of burritos and a beer, I began the last leg of my road trip over the mountains, arriving home around 3:00 pm.

Whew! I made it, a little bit tired, but safe and sound. Every once-in-awhile, you need to shake up your life a little. What an adventure!

Finally, I would get a chance to use the garage door opener.

Road Trip 9: Finding New Jersey…in Texas?

I retraced my steps until I almost got to boring Georgia. Then I turned west to follow I-10 across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and through Texas to almost Austin. After 13 hours, I stopped in Baton Rouge hoping to catch some Cajun food, and possibly a crawfish boil. The front desk clerk informed me that crawfish were out-of-season. But, I had researched restaurants in the area. So, after plunking down my bags in my room, I went in search of one I had highlighted.

What a disaster! I made a wrong turn getting off the highway and found myself in a questionable Baton Rouge neighborhood. Backtracking, I finally found the LSU campus where I needed to find a cross street. I was just in time for evening classes to be let out. Turning left on the correct street, I drove for, what seemed like an interminable period of time.

I entered the bar/restaurant which looked like a pretty basic neighborhood place. I sat at the bar and ordered a local brew, which it turns out, was the best part of the meal. Next came crawfish etouffee. It arrived as an over-rued glop over what I guess was Cajun rice. I would have taken a picture, but it wasn’t worth the disk space on my camera – gag! After finding a faster way back to my hotel on my iPhone, I was outa there.

Next day I went in search of barbecue – halfway across Texas. After partaking of a free complimentary breakfast, I left Baton Rouge behind and found myself cruising along on what must be one of the world’s longest causeways.

Driving across Louisiana on the I-10 causeway

Driving across Louisiana on the I-10 causeway

Mile after mile, it traversed a swampy netherworld below. I can’t imagine how they built that road, who built it, or how many people were lost to crocodiles, malaria, or whatever mosquito-borne disease.

Louisiana like its southern cousin, Georgia, is rife with billboards advertising all kinds of vice, except that Louisiana added gambling to the mix. You can imagine how refreshing it was to cross the border into Texas and find myself back in New Jersey! From Lake Charles, Louisiana almost all the way the to Houston, I thought I was on the New Jersey Turnpike – or even better, Route 1 in north Jersey. Heavy industry, petrochemical process manufacturing is the business here. It extends for miles. I-10 is even edged by a parallel commercial access road – just like Route 1.

Sailing through Houston, I headed west I-10 toward San Antonio, then left the highway at Columbus and followed Route 71 to just south of Austin. I was in search of a restaurant called Salt Lick in Driftwood. There might have been better barbecue in the Austin area, but I didn’t want to mess with Austin and its traffic.

Fire at Salt Lick

Fire at Salt Lick

Finding the place took me longer than I expected. It’s quite an operation. I’ll bet they could have seated 1000 people there. At 1:30 on a Wednesday there was plenty of room.

Burn Ends Plate at Salt Lick

Burn Ends Plate at Salt Lick

I got a burnt ends plate. Burnt ends is from the point cut of brisket. After smoking for 12-15 hours with the rest of the brisket, it’s removed and allowed to go for a few more. It was pretty good and the portion was big enough to have some leftovers. My only complaint was the sides. The potato salad and cole slaw were passable. But, no barbecue joint should sell baked beans like that. They were one step above the canned variety. With all the trimmings that Salt Lick generates, and a smoker to cook them in, they could have made some spectacular baked beans. Too bad.

Meandering my way to I-35, I headed south again through San Antonio where I found more New Jersey style highway – without the refineries – but with lots of manufacturing nevertheless. I was headed for a town called Cotulla, 70 miles north of the Mexican border.

Cotulla sits on or near the Eagle Ford oil fields. It’s the biggest deposit of oil in North America. The place is booming with new hotels rising faster than oil wells. Brawny workers inhabit the hotels, along with travelers passing by like me. The pick-up trucks with some type of machinery line the parking lots.

After finding a cold beer down the road, I returned to my room, glad that I had some yummy leftovers for dinner.