You probably won't see a mask-clad Luchador dining at a Mexican restaurant in Northern Alabama. This scene is more typical of the dining establishments of downtown Phoenix, where I moved from. Even there, the sight of a hulking man in a black and white wrestling mask getting out of his gold accented Cadillac was a surprising nod to the authenticity of the restaurant. The food was excellent. A unique blend of foods and regional flavors not offered at the majority of mainstream Mexican places in my Chandler suburb. I do not remember the name of the restaurant or the occasion that took me there. I do remember the meal, and the place was perfect. The experience was a Mexican food unicorn I will probably never experience again.
When it comes to food today, we are searching for a mythical perfect meal, waiting expectantly at our table prepared for each outing to blow us away with exceptional taste and presentations that provide an enviable Instagram post. Personally, I blame the Food Network, but it could be the pressure of social media. Either way, we hold unrealistic expectations for meals and are often disappointed when even the simplest meal doesn’t live up to our gourmet expectations or isn’t photo worthy.
We are even more disappointed when we come from a place where there are numerous possibilities for our favorite cuisine to a place where the options are limited. I should have known. I wouldn’t expect to find the best Southern barbecue in Chicago or amazing pizza in Maine. But even knowing that, when I moved here, I set myself up for disappointment. Not happy to merely satisfy my hunger, I went in search of a mythical perfect meal on each outing, a sure recipe for dissatisfaction.
In Arizona, I was used to a wide variety of Mexican food of varying regions. I had a favorite Baja taco place, a favorite taco truck, which specialized in Chilaquiles – a breakfast dish with eggs, chicken and fried corn tortillas – a favorite lunch place with excellent guacamole, and even a more refined dinner option with a live salsa band. I brought those experiences and expectations with me to Alabama, forgetting that when living in the West my options for BBQ and Southern had been limited to Cracker Barrel and Famous Daves.
Things changed one afternoon on my way to get groceries. Rather than break the cardinal rule of shopping while starving and avoid purchasing more groceries than I needed, I ducked into a small Mexican place called El Olmeca just down the strip from Kroger. And, my view of Mexican food in Alabama began to shift.
The food at El Olmeca isn’t authentic, it is an Americanized version of Mexican food adapted for mass appeal, but it was delicious, and the restaurant met all of my requirements for atmosphere as well. A perpetual soccer game on the TV above the bar, check. A colorful mural of rural Mexican life adorning the walls, check. A never-ending supply of chips and salsa, check. A cold Corona and lime, double check.
I ordered enchiladas, which arrived perfectly cooked, and while not quite spicy enough were flavorful and filling. And the lunch buffet looked delicious and varied. My eyes were opened. While it may be tough to find an authentic Mexican restaurant in Huntsville if you go in search of a perfect, authentic Mexican food experience that you can share with your social network. But if your intention is to be satisfied and full for less than $40, the options abound.
I have since tried Buena Vista and Las Trojas and found similarly good results. While each of these restaurants has unique attributes, they share good food, welcoming atmosphere and cheap drinks making them my go to Mexican food. I was lucky enough to stumble into Buena Vista on one of the nights they have live music. With my food, I enjoyed a unique piano medley of video game soundtracks that morphed into a set of classic rock. The singer had a pleasant voice and impressive piano skills, his musical addition complementing the bar setting of this large establishment. At Las Trojas, we stumbled on trivia night, I am delighted to report my girlfriend, and I got third place, and received a gift card, which covered half our meal. The Brain Blast Trivia was fun, the food was above average, and the margaritas were large and cold.
The truth is, most people looking for a great lunch or dinner spot aren’t on some culinary quest for the perfect meal. And, unless you are dining with the cast of Nacho Libre, or find yourself in Chihuahua for the weekend, chances are most of the Mexican food you find in Huntsville and in most places, will not be authentic. It will be an Americanized version of Mexican food, homogenized for mass consumption, and that’s ok because it’s delicious. Let’s be honest, when we want Mexican food, especially in North Alabama, we want a mountain of chips still warm from the fryer, a large bowl of salsa, and an alcoholic slushy masquerading as a margarita, and for that, Huntsville has some good of options.
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