Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2008

St. John’s directions to his favorite Mexican restaurant: ‘Find it if you can.’

Mexican is my favorite ethnic cuisine.

I have vacillated through the years. As a kid, I was into Italian (if you can call spaghetti, lasagna, and pepperoni pizza Italian— and actually, you can’t). In college I was fond of Chinese food, which seemed very exotic at the time. I still like Chinese, but it’s hard to find a good Chinese restaurant in the area. Most have grown into nothing more than homogenized, all-you-can-eat buffet food troughs serving the same canned sauces as the next guy. They pale in comparison to the real thing.

When I started cooking professionally, I dove headfirst into the Larousse Gastronomique and French cooking became my cuisine of choice. French cooking begat Creole cooking and when I opened a New Orleans-themed restaurant in 1990, I was all about Creole. I had been eating the Creole dishes served in New Orleans since childhood so that cuisine was not a stretch.

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When the rest of the country was tuning into Southwestern and Tex-Mex in the early 1990s, I was too. I still love the flavors of the American Southwest.

Several years ago I discovered Nobu restaurant in New York and fell quickly in love with Japanese cuisine. Local Japanese restaurants, unlike their Chinese cousins, haven’t become homogenized. There are several top-notch Japanese restaurants in my hometown and throughout the South. Other than the same canned squid salad, and the same canned seaweed salad, the items offered and preparations used are very different.

Through it all, I always go back to Mexican. Granted, it’s often hard to find Mexican restaurants that stand out from the crowd. They, too, can be like Chinese buffets in that recipes rarely vary from restaurant to restaurant. It seems that there is a lot of movement of employees, managers, and cooks between various Mexican-themed restaurants. Often the recipes are similar in many restaurants in a market.

But when one finds their favorite— the Mexican restaurant that stands above all others— it can be a beautiful thing.

Two years ago I found a small Mexican restaurant located in the back of a Mexican convenience store. It is great. The menu is written in Spanish, all of the employees and customers speak Spanish, and the owners don’t seem the least bit concerned about serving any non-Spanish speaking Americans. I love that. It’s the real deal.

My secret Mexican restaurant makes guacamole tableside using a mortar and pestle, just as it should be done. There are several exotic meats offered in their tacos. And there’s no sign of the typical Americanized Mexican menu staples anywhere.

I eat at this restaurant with a few select friends who have asked me not to mention the name or location for fear that the tiny four-table, six-stool restaurant might become too crowded. I’ll say this, if you want real Mexican food, go where the Hispanic migrant workers shop for products sent from home.

I was in Chicago recently and ate two of my five available meals at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill. For those who love Mexican food, Frontera Grill is the American Mecca. Bayless knows more about Mexican food, Mexican ingredients, and Mexican culinary customs than 99% of the chefs in Mexico. He is truly a student of the cuisine.

I sent one of my chefs at the Purple Parrot Café on a Viking Life field trip with Bayless a few years ago and she came back a changed woman. Bayless has always struck me as more of a chemist or historian, but make no mistake, this man is functioning on a higher level than anyone in the country when it comes to Mexican cuisine.

Some restaurants don’t live up to their advance billing. I yearned to eat at Coyote Café in Santa Fe for 15 years before I ever dined there. It was a disappointment. Frontera Grill, on the other hand, surpassed my expectations. It stands to this day as the restaurant that has served me the best tortilla soup I have ever tasted. Local mortar-and-pestle convenience-store properties included, the Frontera Grill serves the best guacamole I’ve ever eaten. At a recent Frontera Grill brunch, I drank the best orange juice I have ever tasted using Mexican oranges with a slight red tint that had been flown in from northern Mexico. Frontera’s ceviche was also outstanding.

I only travel to Chicago once a year, but my secret local Mexican joint in the back of the convenience store will be just fine until I return. Find it if you can.

For this week’s recipe, Grilled Shrimp Tacos with Fresh Fruit Pico di Gallo and Jalapeño and Roasted Garlic Crème Fraiche, go to the column link on <> .

(Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of seven books including the newly released New South Grilling. He can be reached at <> .