Outing the Old el Paso myth

When you think of Mexican food, what do you think?

Old El Paso tacos with lettuce, tomato and grated cheddar cheese from out of a box kit that you purchased at Woolworths or Tesco?  Or nachos laden with sour cream with some ground beef (also known as mince if you are antipodean), seasoned with Old El Paso ‘authentic’ Mexican seasoning?  Old El Paso has a lot to answer for when you finally figure out that good Mexican food doesn’t come from out of a yellow box!

So put your sombreros on guys, grab a Corona and read on!  Let’s take a journey through Mexico…and don’t think for a second that you’re going to lose weight on this tour!

Our first day takes us to the ancient ‘Toltec’ ruins just outside of Mexico City – the very impressive and breathtaking Teotihuacan.  I’ve been using our local guide Riccy Ricardo (or his full name Tonatiuh) for 3 years and we’re lucky enough after our tour of the ruins Ric, continues on with delicious side.  It’s 11am and Ric shouts us our first ‘Coronitas’ (mini Coronas) and then it’s onto Moin who gives us a demonstration from an Agave plant.    Agave provides the neccesary contents for Tequila and Mezcal (two completely different drinks) and a cotton like substance that many ancient cultures used for sewing.  Your fun fact for this section is that GOOD Tequila ie not Jose Cuervo, should be sipped and not shot as we are lead to believe.  My personal reccomendation is Don Julio.  Moin treats us to as many sips as we can handle then it’s off to Rics family home where his Mama is cooking up a storm.

Toltec Fajitas, guacamole, black bean soup, tortilla soup, panuchos, mexican rice (slow cooked normally with some sort of stock) sopes and my personal favourite…a whole chicken stuffed with cactus and seasoning then cooked for around 8 hours in banana leaves.  All served up with delicious blue corn tortillas, which Ric informs us that 4 tortillas is equal in calories to 1 slice of white bread.  Get your tortilla on people!

Speaking of tortillas I should let you know that there are two types of tortillas eaten in Mexico.  Corn, which is the most traditional and most healthy or flour which, if they are home made are normally mixed up with animal fat.

After we say our goodbyes and I glare at Ric for his Mum setting the food bar way too high again and a departing homemade almond tequila from his Uncle we make our way via snow capped volcanoes to Puebla – the City of Angels and the home of ‘Mole Poblano’.

Mole Poblano contains around 20 ingredients (chocolate, chillis, pumpkin seeds) and basically originates from a bunch of panicky nuns who didn’t have enough to put together a more extravagant meal for the visiting archbishop.  Well ladies, you did well for throwing together what you did have.  It’s rich, delicious, minimally spicey taste is perfect with chicken.  And tortillas.  Teams very nicely with ‘Negra Modelo’, a delicious dark beer or some cheeky Mexican red wine.

Mole Poblano

Next day we head out to Oaxaca (pronounced WA-HA-KA). At kilometre 76 we get to stop for Tamales.  These are what I consider the best in Mexico.  A little wee packet in a banana leaf of maize and in the middle a little surprise of chicken and a mildly spicy red sauce!  Mexican street food is divine.  My general rule is that if there is a line up, it’s going to be good and fresh (ie a very minimal risk of getting sick).

Tamales in Oaxaca

On arrival in Oaxaca we take a little wee foodie orientation.  Our first stop is the market where you have the option to try delicious ‘chapulines’ (grasshoppers) either with or without chilli.  These guys eat chapulines with their beer like we eat nuts.  Perfect for when you pop into ‘La Farola’ which is Oaxacas oldest pub for a sneaky afternoon draught beer.  Next we’ll give some of that famous Oaxacan cheese a crack.  Mozzerellaish, light and tasty and served on every ‘torta’ (toasted sandwich) in town.  Another fresh cheese which is good involves small bits of habanero and cilantro – delicious but quite spicy.  After the cheese we head down to Chocolate Mayordomo where we get a run down on how they make their chocolate – also including samples and a delicious ‘malteada’ (chocolate milk).  The best thing about their chocolate is that it doesn’t melt – bonus if  you want to take some home!  Next it’s on for some Mezcal tasting…

Mezcal is the one that has the worm, in Oaxaca you find the best Mezcal.  Also more of a sipping drink – but you can slam it if you like, including the worm and some grasshopper salt.  The main reason I bring people here is to try the ‘Mezcal creams’.  You know how the base of Baileys is whiskey?  Well this place does delicious creams with Mezcal as the base.  Flavours include pina colada, strawberry, caramel, mocha, chocolate and mint.  Honey based (not cream) ones include passionfruit and my personal favourite hibiscus!

Before dinner we head to a traditional ‘cantina’ where as we walk through the cowboy swing doors with that theme in our heads!  To this day the lovely bar man still looks at me like I’m crazy bringing tourists in.  All part of the experience and the brave will order a Mezcal which is normally a cup of, not a shot of.  Next it’s onto dinner where we are treated to ‘Chiles Rellenos’, stuffed chiles (little spicy but the chile is normally a sweet pepper type of one), stuffed with beans, marinated pork and some veges!  Or a Tlayuda which is kind of like a Oaxacan pizza (tortilla base, Oaxanan cheese, avocado, tomato)…

In all honesty, Mexican food generally isn’t served super spicy.  Either not spicy at all or only a wee bit.  They tend to bring the sauces to the table for you to spice it up!

First night in San Cristobal de las Casas we head out for the cheapest meal on tour, yet the most delicious.  Tostadas are a simple concept.  A corn tortilla, toasted with beans spread on the bottom, lettuce, tomato and onion and then topped with either shredded chicken or in this case ‘Tinga de Res’.  The ‘res’ (beef) is slow cooked for hours in the Tinga sauce which is chipotle based but also involving other various chiles onions, garlic and tomatoes.  For a serving of 3, it costs you about $2.  I’ve never had anyone order a second round.  Cheap, cheerful and delicious.  And in a local comedor owned by a local family.  Eating consciously!

Tacos dorados

Another highlight of San Cristobal de las Casas is ‘Miura’.  A stunning bull fight themed restaurant in the heart of town specialising in beef from the region of Tabasco (yep, where the sauce comes from) and Mexican wines.  It’s a step up from the night before, but for the equivalent of $16 you will get as many cuts of beef as you want, served to your plate exactly how you want it cooked!  The beef is incredibly tender and phenomonally seasoned.  Teamed with a wine from the cellar downstairs…divine!  We leave ‘Miura’ and head to my buddy Luis to see who is up for a ‘Mayan Sacrifice’.  What is that you say…well, I can’t give away all my secrets now!

Onto Palenque for some heat (referring to the climate).  Another cheap and cheerful very traditional dinner of tacos!  Now this is where Old El Paso just gets on my wick.  Tacos are not crispy and folded in half (unless of course you are ordering ‘tacos dorados’, which are rolled and fried).  They are not served with lettuce or tomato or sour cream or melted cheese.  Tacos are generally a soft corn tortilla and you have a choice or ‘bistek’ (beef) or ‘pastor’ pork.  They will come in a portion of 3 or 5, with fried onions and cilantro and in some cases pineapple.  They are not spicy, you add the spice with a various range of sauces that are plonked on your table.  Wash it down with a ‘limonada’ (home made lemonade) or a ‘Rosa Jamaica’ (cold hibiscus tea) and you have it made for less than $4.

After the jungle tour and then the tour of the grand ruins of Palenque we’re ready for a fiesta it’s time to dance the night away in a great little joint in the jungle surrounding Palenque…great Mexican food, local dancers, fire dancing and local bands.  Stunning end to a challenging yet rewarding day!  You deserve a Negra Modela after this day, and this place sells them by the litres!

After an enjoyable bus trip mainly along the coast taking us through Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and finally into Yucatan we arrive at Merida.  Around 30 minutes from the coast Merida steams in summer time, but it is a city that has so much to offer that you often forget the heat.  Our first night sees us devouring ‘cochinita pibil’ (suckling pig slow cooked in a banana leaf), Sopa de Lima (lime soup) and sipping on ‘Coctel Maya’ (mayan cocktail)…another one I won’t give away!  If you chose to do the optional excursion of the ‘Cenotes’ (sinkholes only found in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, perfect for cooling off), you’ll be eating for lunch locally caught fish, so fresh it almost flips off your plate normally served with beans, rice and tortillas.  Food so simple but done so mouthwatering well!

From Merida we make our way to the mighty ‘Chichen Itza’ (or easily remembered as Chicken and Pizza) for a guided tour that takes you back to what it must have been like when Mayans ruled the area.  After that tour we head onto famous Cancun, where we will eat more seafood (conch, calamari, fish, lobster), drink margaritas, sip tequila and listen to traditional Mariachis.

Try putting all that in a yellow box!

Try these local delicacies on Tucan Travel’s Magical Mexico tour.

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