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All Mex’ed Up

A trip to La Frontera inspires the question: What is Mexican cooking, anyway?

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Through the years I’ve enjoyed hundreds of meals in Mexico. There have been day trips to border towns like Nogales and Juarez; extended visits to destinations like Cabo San Lucas, Mexico City, Acapulco, Puebla, Puerto Angel, Aqua Prieta and Puerto Escondido; and season-long stays in Oaxaca. I used to think that my exposure to Mexican cooking made me somewhat of an “amateur expert” on the subject. Now, I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m not even sure I know anymore what Mexican cooking is.

The issue, it seems, is one of authenticity. What, after all, is Mexican food? A taco from a street vendor on State Street? The Red Iguana’s turkey mole? A Taco Bell chalupa? Posole at the Loco Lizard? Rubio’s cheese enchilada? Beats me. Maybe Mexican food is any food cooked by people of Mexican descent. But that can’t be right, or we’d have to include dishes made at a majority of Utah restaurants, Mexican or otherwise, with Mexican cooks in the kitchen.

The original La Frontera restaurant in the Poplar Grove neighborhood of Salt Lake City dates back at least a couple decades and is, I think, agreed upon by most people to be a Mexican restaurant. It says so on the menu and the sign out front. I’ve heard many people over the years refer to La Frontera as their “favorite Mexican restaurant.” Why then, does almost nothing on the La Frontera menu resemble anything I’ve ever eaten in Mexico? Are we being duped?

Not entirely. For example, you can get an authentic bowl of menudo ($3.75) at La Frontera, glistening with fat just as you’d find in Chihuahua. But, like La Frontera’s jukebox, which totes tunes from Abba and Blondie to Los Tigres del Norte and Los Mercenarios, the menu there ranges from a reasonably authentic version of Mexican steak encebollado ($8.75) to the deep-fried burritos called chimichangas which I’m pretty sure originated in or near Tucson, Ariz.'making it an American dish.

After first discovering “Mexican” cooking during my college days in Colorado, I searched fruitlessly in Mexico itself for my favorite “Mexican” dish, chile verde. As far as I can tell now, the thick green chile and pork stew that I love'and that La Frontera is famous for'probably originated in New Mexico, which I suppose again makes chile verde American, unless we consider that Mexicans were in New Mexico long before we gringos were. At any rate, the only chile verde I’ve found in Mexico is a sauce/condiment made from tomatillos and cilantro usually called salsa verde'very different from the orange-green pork-infused “gravy” served at La Frontera and many other north-of-the-border Mexican restaurants.

Unfortunately, smothering my homemade La Frontera tamale ($3.50) in La Frontera’s chunky chile verde couldn’t hide the fact that the masa was stale and dry'perhaps because it came without the corn-husk wrapper that serves to keep moistness in. And, by the way, “smothered” at La Frontera means covered with chile verde and means an additional surcharge in most cases. It’s important to read the fine print at La Frontera, where a combination plate that costs $7 can wind up totaling $11 with certain substitutions, like asking for ground beef in your taco rather than the standard filling of chorizo and beans. Oddly, there is no shredded beef or pork to be had for tacos or burritos at La Frontera.

There is, however, plenty of cheese. When I ordered a burrito smothered, without cheese, it came with what looked to be a half-pound or so of gooey, melted orange cheese. My server apologized saying, “I won’t charge you for the cheese.” Again, I’ve never seen orange (presumably cheddar) cheese in a restaurant in Mexico. And I could scarcely even see the corn tortilla for the cheese in and on my La Frontera enchilada.

The creamy refried beans at La Frontera are as delectable as the rice is disgusting. The rice that accompanied my steak encebollado was soggy and virtually tasteless, as though it had been soaking in tepid tap water for hours. The steak itself'advertised as “top sirloin”'was a thin, tough piece of equally tasteless meat, topped with sautéed onions and La Frontera’s house salsa (which I love, but not on everything). Given that the steak was only about 1/4-inch thick at its meatiest intersection, I was surprised my server asked how I wanted it cooked. I requested medium-rare; it came to the table well done. And since La Frontera doesn’t offer any bottled hot sauces, there wasn’t even any El Pato or Cholula picante sauce to help revive my dead meat.

The hard-shell chicken taco in my combo plate was nearly indistinguishable from the tostada; both were damp and required utensils to eat. Granted, french fries aren’t a staple of Mexican cooking, but the ones that came with my steak were inedible. They looked almost translucent and were completely limp and moist, as though they’d been steeped in 250-degree oil for five or 10 minutes.

What is authentically Mexican about La Frontera is the friendly service and hospitality from servers like Victoria and Chunk. And there are authentic jalapeños available at La Frontera'a staple of Mexican cuisine'but they’ll cost you an extra 75 cents. You can wash them down with authentic Tecate, Dos Equis and Corona. Authentic or not, La Frontera'like Taco Bell'is still a Mexican favorite for many.

LA FRONTERA
n1236 W. 400 South
nAdditional locations throughout the valley
nOpen daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 10 a.m.
n532-3158

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