Friday, August 17, 2007

Memories of La Comida


Growing up in Northern California I was certainly no stranger to Mexican food, but it’s funny how cuisines can change over time. The Mexican restaurant of my past is a far cry from the Mexican restaurants I visit now. My tastes have changed, grown more sophisticated and so has the cuisine. Very often, Friday night was Mexican night for my family and that meant a trip to La Comida Restaurant for carryout.

Located in a 1950’s strip mall across from the Chico cemetery, La Comida featured counter service only with tables for dining in and baskets of free chips with salsa. The salsa was put in clear plastic squeeze bottles so you could add just the right amount of salsa to each individual chip and everything was served on plastic or Styrofoam. You had to be careful because, sometimes the salsa would stop up at the top of the squeeze bottle and then explode through the opening like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I always ordered the beef and bean burrito with a bean tostada. A foil wrapped flour tortilla was filled with seasoned ground beef, refried beans, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. No sour cream. No ranchero sauce. Mexican restaurants didn’t do that at that time. The tostadas came with a choice of dressing and as a kid I always chose Thousand Island. My dad always ordered a beef enchilada with a chile relleno. The enchilada was filled with the same seasoned ground beef as the burrito and topped with a mild red sauce. The chile relleno was a deep fried egg battered pepper filled with LOTS of Monterey Jack cheese. It was good. It was cheap. You could get lunch with a soda for about three bucks. In high school, La Comida became a favorite lunch spot for me and my circle of friends.

Then, on a summer trip to southern California, after many hours driving in our Westfalia “Pop Top” Volkswagen camper van, my family made an emergency stop for food in San Juan Capistrano at a rather dodgy looking Mexican carryout just off the highway.

We were scared.

Unlike our beloved La Comida, this Mexican restaurant was full of … Mexicans. There were even Mexicans behind the counter! I ordered the beef burrito, expecting my tried and true La Comida burrito with ground beef, refried beans, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes, but when I bit into the tortilla something unexpected happened. It was full of beef; rich succulent chunks of slowly cooked, tender beef in a smoky and spicy sauce. It was delicious. It was a revelation. I knew then, at the very first bite, I would never look at my La Comida burrito the same way again.

When I started college a small family-run corn tortilla factory opened in downtown Chico. It was called El Indio. To promote their products, El Indio opened for lunch each day at 11 AM and served authentic homemade Mexican cuisine featuring their own homemade corn tortillas, literally until they ran out of food. You had to get there at least a half an hour early if you didn’t want to get shut out because they typically ran out of food by 11:30 AM.

I had always been burrito boy, but El Indio changed my predilections. I loved their taquitos. Corn tortillas were rolled with shredded chicken or beef and served with homespun guacamole and pico de gallo. The flour tortilla became passé, and unauthentic to me, but I should have known that would change too.

My good friend Nanette Flores and I were involved in a production of the play Two Tables, a 1930’s, English parlor room comedy cum Noel Coward set in a British seaside resort dining room. I played the dashing young doctor on his honeymoon and Nanette was a waitress for the Inn. After rehearsals we would go back to Nanette’s house where her mother would make the most fantastic things for us to eat.

Her specialty was homemade flour tortillas with refried beans. The tortillas were thick doughy rounds of hand pressed flour with a deep smoky flavor from heating them on the stove burner. Her refried beans were creamy and dense flavored only with salt and Manteca, pork lard. This very simple meal taught me something critical about good food. Simple food executed flawlessly is sublime.

As an adult, my taste for Mexican has progressed even further. Once happy with the likes of Chevy’s Fresh Mex now I seek restaurants featuring the cuisines of regions like Oaxaca or Chihuahua. Tex-Mex has given way to Red Snapper ala Vera Cruz and mole con Pollo. Cheddar cheese has been replaced by Queso Cotija and tacos need to be filled with things like beef tongue, halibut or chorizo.

Recently, in Crofton Maryland, a restaurant has opened up at the Staples Corner strip mall, across from the Reno’s Motel, next to the Paceway gas station and no more than 5 minutes from my house called Mi Casita. I will be giving you a proper review of the restaurant in a coming post, but I have to tell you that there is something rather nostalgic about this place. It’s not La Comida, but it has hints of it. The salsa comes in miniature plastic carafes and the tacos are wrapped in foil. There is something very comforting about it.

Finally, my dear readers, if you are ever in Chico California, you can still visit La Comida in the same location that it has always been in and sample the exact same menu my family did when we started going there well over 30 years ago, except now you will pay just under five bucks for the meal I ordered.

Oh, and please be careful with the salsa.

7 comments:

Osito5505 said...

VIVA LA FIESTA!!

Osito5505 said...

or... Long live the Party!!

Mick said...

What a great perspective piece on how one's tastes change over time, as have Americans' in general, as our exposure to other cuisines has broadened our culinary horizons.

I remember my parents taking us kids into downtown Indianapolis (the big city!) to a Chinese restaurant called Jong Mea's where we sampled such exotica as egg rolls and chop suey! Now, however, my Asian fare has expanded to include not only Szechuan or Hunan, for example, but also Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisines, and (thanks to friends) even a bit of sushi! Heh.

And of course I'm sure our friends from other nations equally appreciate our sharing with them aspects of American cuisine such as the cheeseburger and French fries!

Not to mention Thousand Island dressing...

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

This was a great great post. I really enjoyed the read immensly. I love the path of you palate changes seen through the tastes of Mexican food and how by accident you were given a new point of view when your family was on vacation. This is what food is all about! Thanks for sharing!

Welcome to The Foodie Blogroll!

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Now I am realizing the more I check out your blog that you are in the MD/DC area! I grew up there! I am going to enjoy your blog!

officeconfidential said...

I found your blog when I Googled La Comida--I haven't been there in ages and was trying to find out if they have any new locations for an upcoming trip I'm taking to northern CA. I might not make it into Chico, but there's always the Redding location, which isn't the same but might have to suffice since Redding is right on I-5 and therefore in my path.

Your description of the salsa and the salsa explosions was so right, and hilarious.

I used to get the Super Burrito with sour cream, but I also liked the Texas Taco and the occasional enchilada plate or tostada.

My Mexican tastes have evolved a lot, too, to the point that I don't really even think of La Comida as Mexican food in the strictest sense, but it sure has a special place in my heart.

Oh, and El Indio was fantastic, when you could get it.

Laura said...

AS a recent transplant to Chico, I appreciate the review. I was considering La Comida for dinner tonight, but having never tried it, I was a little leery. As you know, Chic has many Mexican restaurants in which to choose. As a result of reading your review, La Comida will be dinner tonight in my house.