I have never gotten the hang of Mexican food. There are vague memories of tacos and chimichangas in the school cafeteria, the occasional tostada at a Mexican restaurant with friends. There was that school trip to Mazatlán back in seventh grade, of which I remember only quesadillas at dinner, fajitas at some roadside stand (wrapped in handmade tortillas cooked on a vast griddle; there is a sketch somewhere in some long-lost journal), pickled pig's feet in Guadalajara, and strawberry daiquiris at Señor Frog's. (I have never had another daiquiri since that trip).
Other than those random and far-flung experiences, Mexican food remained a mystery to me, described in magazines and movies and books such as Like Water for Chocolate (a story for another time) but outside the realm of my own tastes, my own life. Much later, when I was in college, I would work for an artist who would take me out to lunch every now and then, usually to the Mexican place in a funky little mall near the museum. I never knew what to order, and now I can't remember what I did wind up ordering. It was good, but it was never anything I loved or had any great feeling for. Until now.
Occasionally J. would mention a place near the university where she went for Mexican food with her friends. We should try that sometime, I'd say, but it never happened. Until one day at work when we ordered massive amounts of burritos and chips and salsa and guacamole and sat around the huge round table in the kitchen, with bottles of beer and mojitos (it was Cinco de Mayo, if I remember correctly). I remember sitting down with my heavily-laden plate, my drink, cool and minty, and thinking, wow, this is really something. I will never love Mexican food the way I do, say, Italian or French or Japanese, something I eat almost weekly, that I cook at home or go out to nearby restaurants with friends and family.
But tonight I want Mexican food. We head to Cactus, down in the Madison park neighborhood near the water. Farther up the hill are some of my favorite restaurants, Rover's and Harvest Vine and Nishino; down here the vibe is even more casual. There is the diner we usually go to when Cactus is full - which it usually is - and a pub. A little farther down the block is an Italian place where I vaguely remember having lunch outside on the sidewalk, many years ago. But tonight is a weeknight, and it is early. Cactus is mostly empty, and for the first time we have our pick of tables instead of a long line and a forty-five minute wait.
We sit down, and a basket of tortilla chips arrives, with a bowl of salsa and another of guacamole. The chips are thinner and lighter than any I have seen before, crisp and weightless; the salsa is fresh and sweet with tomatoes and bright with chilies and the sharpness of onion, the guacamole chunky and rich and cool. A promise of more good things to come. There is grilled skirt steak, bright with lime and coriander, smoky with the red mole sauce, over garlicky mashed potatoes, piled high with spicy, finely sliced onion rings. It is not traditional in any sense of the word, but it is better than delicious, and the miseries of the day melt away and disappear.