As far as I’m concerned, any excuse to eat Mexican food is a good one. But the celebration of Cinco de Mayo—usually observed over a period of days, not just on the 5th—provides us with even more ammunition for gorging on tacos, chile peppers, mole, pozole, menudo and burritos, while of course washing it all down with frosty Margaritas and Mexican “cervezas.”
Contrary to common assumptions, the 5th of May—Cinco de Mayo—is not Mexico’s day of independence. That’s September 15th, the day in 1810 when Mexico declared its independence from Spain. What Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates is the defeat of the French army of Napoleon III in the battle of Puebla, when 4,000 poorly equipped Mexicans defeated an army nearly twice the size. That battle ended on May 5, 1862, and Cinco de Mayo is now celebrated on May 5th all throughout Mexico but with added gusto in the state of Puebla, not to mention in U.S. cities with large Hispanic populations.
These celebrations tend to be largely about food, drink and family, which is probably the best way to celebrate anything. And any celebration that includes tacos and chile verde will certainly pique my interest. Unlike other Mexican holidays, many of which tend to highlight specific dishes, the food served during Cinco de Mayo in Mexico varies from region to region. So for your own Cinco de Mayo celebration, simply select your favorite Mexican foods, put some mariachi music on the stereo and break open a piÃ±ata or two. The following are some of my favorite Mexican restaurant dishes, worthy of Cinco de Mayo.
For rich Mexican moles, it’s hard to beat the Red Iguana, where you’ll find a range of complex mole sauces ranging from yellow and green to red to almost black. All of the moles at the Red Iguana are great, but my personal favorite is their mole poblano. It’s a rich dark mole sauce made from ground peanuts, walnuts, almonds, and a hint of Mexican chocolate, along with poblano chile peppers, and served in the traditional Mexican manner with turkey. The mole poblano at Red Iguana is outstanding on Cinco de Mayo or any other day of the week. I also enjoy the mole dishes at Casa Sanchez. And although strictly speaking it’s not a mole dish, the pollo en pipian at Casa Sanchez is marvelous: a delicious plate of tender chicken cooked in a sensuous and sensational pumpkin seed sauce.
If I had to choose a single Mexican dish that I’d pick over all others, it’s probably carnitas—slow-cooked chunks of pork, served typically with guacamole. In Salt Lake City, the carnitas plate I just can’t resist is at the Rio Grande CafÃ©. But I like the version at Loco Lizard, too. And speaking of Loco Lizard, that’s where I go for a hot and steaming bowl of delicious pozole, the Guadalajaran stew made with pork, onions, chiles, hominy, and garnished with oregano and radish slices.
Let’s talk tacos. There was a time when finding authentic Mexican tacos meant driving out to Fort Union Boulevard and indulging at the Lone Star Taqueria. Well, the Lone Star still makes a great taco; the fish tacos are about as good as it gets. But now you can find good tacos all over town. My very favorite tacos come from the vendors that set up their carts along State Street, near Sears. Great tacos can also be found at Taqueria Piedras Negras (try the tripe taco) and at Tacos Daniel, where the machaca taco made with shredded beef, chile peppers and scrambled eggs makes me shout, “OlÃ©!”
I tend to think of chile verde as more of a Chicano concoction than a traditional Mexican dish. In fact, I’ve never even encountered chile verde in Mexico. But my Cinco de Mayo fiesta still wouldn’t be complete without a hot bowl of chile verde. Red Iguana makes great chile verde, with plump tender chunks of pork. But my favorite probably comes from La Macarena, with the chile verde at Las Cazuelas a close second. I also am a big fan of the chile verde up at Keyhole Junction in the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird Resort, another terrific Mexican restaurant with an amazing selection of premium tequilas to try.
With many Mexican food aficionados I know, the rubber really meets the road with burritos. And while I’ve rarely met a burrito I didn’t like, my favorites come from Taqueria Piedras Negras, CafÃ© Pierpont (Macho Grande Burrito), La Villita Mexican Grill (the green chile burrito is killer), Barbacoa, and Las Cazuelas (the Gringo Burrito). I also recently discovered the chile-smothered beef burrito at Don Antonio’s in West Valley, which was very satisfying.
Wherever you wind up celebrating Cinco de Mayo, whether at home or in one of your favorite Mexican restaurants, I hope you enjoy feasting on the fantastic flavors of Mexico. Salud!