TEMPLE TERRACE, Fla. — To celebrate and recognize Hispanic Heritage Month, ABC Action News will highlight several different Latin American restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, along with a hit recipe from their menu. We hope this helps you get a taste of the personal and cultural identities that are shaped by food.
A taste of Mexico:
Long before European ships landed on the Caribbean Sea, the pre-Columbian cultures of the Aztecs and Maya were already surviving on diets based on Mesoamerican flora and animals.
Many components used in Mexican cuisine thousands of years ago are still commonly used ingredients in cuisines around the world today.
According to legend, King Moctezuma II greeted Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes with a hot cup of “xocolatl” or chocolate when he arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519.
This drink was made from dark brown beans that would soon be imported into Europe and would be worth the same as the gold Hernan had come to collect.
What is Authentic Mexican Food?
Mexican cuisine is one of the three main ethnic cuisines in the United States, along with Chinese and Italian cuisine. Mexico is also one of the few countries to have its cuisine recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The size of the nation, along with the history of its colonial and immigration past, are some of the reasons why and how Mexican cuisine has become so distinctive.
Mexico has a long history dating back to ancient indigenous peoples like the Maya, who domesticated corn to create “maize”, which had a profound impact on Mexican cuisine.
The tortilla, a staple of the Mexican diet, was created by the Mayans using the nixtamalization method, which involves heating corn in lime water before grinding and drying it to generate flour of masa.
Mexico was exposed to a wide range of new foods as a result of Spanish colonization, reflecting a wide range of influences from around the world.
The Spaniards brought with them slaves, who introduced elements of African cuisine to Mexico.
Sesame seeds for pipianes, rice, plantains, coffee, tamarind, Jamaica for Aguas Frescas and coffee. Even the ingredients, like yams and watermelons, came from Africa.
The domestication of animals, introduced by the Spaniards, led to a large increase in the consumption of protein in the form of cheese and meat and when multiple waves of immigrants began to arrive in Mexico in the 19th century, the Lebanese who invented the shawarma have made the famous tacos al pastor a new element in Mexican cuisine.
More recently, the United States, Mexico’s border neighbor 2,000 miles to the north, has also begun to impact Mexican street food.
American stereotypes have impacted what “authentic” Mexican food looks like when talking about cultural influences on Mexican cuisine.
Few people in Mexico eat burritos constructed with wheat tortillas and taco shells which are often passed off as Mexican cuisine in the United States, just as chop suey and pepperoni pizza are not typical Chinese and Italian dishes. . Mexican cuisine differs significantly from cuisine produced in the United States.
While the huge burritos and hard-shelled tacos with meat are wonderful, they are not traditional Mexican food and are instead a fusion of Texas-Mexican food called “Tex-Mex.”
The Mexican restaurant in Vallarta
Jose R. Jimenez, who hails from a small “pueblo” called San Jose De La Paz in the Mexican state of Jalisco, never imagined he would one day operate the Mexican restaurant in Vallarta.
Jimenez began working as a grape picker in California, but it wasn’t until he started working at a restaurant at age 16 (which is now 60) that Jimenez’s passion for the industry ignited.
Before moving to Florida, Jimenez owned restaurants in Georgia and Pennsylvania. He now owns eight Vallarta Mexican restaurants in the Tampa Bay area.
“They have multiple locations, but everyone’s favorite is the original, the Temple Terrace location,” said Kenia Perez-Melendez, a customer who has been coming to the Mexican restaurant in Vallarta since she was 14.
Perez-Melendez worked at the Temple Terrace restaurant as a hostess at age 15. She stayed there for seven years before leaving when she graduated from college.
That day, she was at Vallarta’s for her co-worker’s retirement party with a group of friends.
“What I love about this restaurant is that you can go as authentic as Mexican (referring to the food) any way you want and if they don’t have it on the menu they will make it as Mexican (referring to spice level), whatever you want,” Perez-Melendez said of his favorite restaurant.
Jimenez noted that the majority of his relatives reside in the United States, and some of them also own businesses in other states like Georgia and Tennessee. Maria Concepcion Leon, his wife, is co-owner of Vallarta, and two other members of his family also work with him.
“I would like to thank our customers for their support and for their constant presence. Without our customers, there would be no business,” Jimenez said.
Best Selling Menu Dish Recipe: Mixed Meat Molcajete
Many Mexican dishes are prepared with pre-Hispanic volcanic stone molcajetes, a mortar and pestle. The two parts of a molcajete are the ‘tejolote’ or grinder/pestle, and the basin/mortar.
Using “tejolote” releases the natural oils in foods and enhances flavor by squeezing and twisting the components into a fine powder.
(Note: New molcajetes should be “dried” by grinding uncooked rice or rock salt in the basin to smooth the insides and remove any grit.)
While Jimenez wouldn’t share his exact recipe for his molcajete, Ericka Sanchez, the Mexican-American creator of the NibblesandFeasts.com website and author of Mexican cookbooks, shared one with ABC Action News.
Mocajete Mixto/ Mixed Meat Mocajete
- 2 cactus paddles
- 10 green onions
- 10 ounces Mexican sausage, chorizo, or longaniza, coated, halved
- ½ pound medium raw shrimp, skinned tail on, rinsed
- ½ pound seasoned skirt steak (or fajita-style meat), cut into strips
- 5 ounces queso fresco, cut into large slices
- 1 cup green or red salsa, warmed
- Warm corn tortillas to serve with
- Preheat the oven to 250°F. Place a large molcajete on a baking sheet. Put in the oven to keep warm.
- Heat a large comal or skillet over low-medium heat. Make a few incisions on the cactus paddles and place them on the pan. Place the scallions next to the cactus paddles and cook until tender and lightly roasted, turning frequently with tongs. Put aside.
- Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Place the longaniza (sausage or chorizo) on a hot skillet, turning it frequently with tongs. Do not break the case. When the longaniza renders its fat, place the prawns next to the longaniza and fry until fully cooked. Remove from fire. Continue cooking the longaniza for 5 minutes or until cooked through. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Cook skirt steak (or fajita meat) to desired doneness. Put aside.
- Carefully remove the hot molcajete from the oven with oven mitts. Arrange the cactus paddles on the edge of the molcajete, place the slices of cheese, longaniza, shrimp, steak and onions in the molcajete. Pour over the hot molcajete salsa. Serve with warm corn tortillas.
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