You can take the girl out of Chipotle, but you can’t take Chipotle out of the girl: American expats and Mexican food
Two years ago, I briefly joined friends who were taking a year-long trip around the world. We met in Thailand while they were eight months into their adventure. Over Chang beer and fiery noodles, I asked them what they missed about America.
I thought they would say “knowing the language,” “fabric softener,” or “hot showers and air conditioning.” The answer was none of the above. They missed Mexican food.
Now that I have an extra appreciation for how our friends felt, I’m even happier that we tried Mexican food in Thailand. It was a mad experiment in international food relations. Our burrito was more of a spring roll, with thoughtfully applied ketchup in place of salsa. Mexican food in Siem Reap, Cambodia was a little better. The “guacamole” was bright green and appeared to be made of peas, but at least the consistency was right. The chips were made of crispy rice paper and the salsa was edible. I watched my friends savor each bite and thought, these poor souls. They simply don’t remember what it tastes like.
Mexican food is a uniquely American experience. You’d think it would be a uniquely Mexican experience, but no. Unless you live in Texas, the Southwest, or Southern California, “Mexican food” is a bizarre hybrid of American, Latin American, Caribbean and South American cuisine. It’s massive burritos with sour cream AND guacamole, margaritas from a machine, Cuban black beans, and deep-fried taco bowls with salad inside (you know, so it’s healthy). It’s kind of disgusting, and I totally miss it.
This year, I can relate to my worldly friends more than ever. Belgrade doesn’t really do Mexican food. Serbians are generally not fond of anything spicy. Mexican ingredients are rarer than an empty seat on the 41 bus line. Black beans? Forget it. Hot sauce? Ha! Cilantro is the Bigfoot of Belgrade markets–people claim they’ve seen it, but they can’t remember where. If they do find it, they paid a huge price and then never see it again. Maybe that’s how I should have spent my time here–forming a black market for cilantro and picante sauce.
There are Mexican restaurants in Belgrade–just not any good ones. Beans are canned and bland. phyllo dough is used instead of tortillas. Some grocery stores do sell flour tortillas (how are Serbians using these?) so at least I can make my own fajitas and tacos. It’s not quite the same.
Fortunately, we found authentic American-Mexican food at Iguana. Unfortunately, Iguana is in…Budapest. Yes, that’s three hours away, but we travel there pretty frequently and three hours is a lot closer than Texas. When the craving gets too bad, Muz and I count down the days until we’re back in Budapest so we can get the best quesadillas this side of the Atlantic. On our last visit, we even ordered jalepeno poppers.
I wouldn’t order these in the States if you paid me, but here they were good. Actual jalepenos, lightly battered, served with a local cheese that was a better replacement for cheddar and sour cream. What’s that on the side? Why, it’s a Michelada: a delicious concoction of lime juice and beer with a salt rim. Technically there should be some tomato juice too, but I’m not complaining.
We’ve been to Iguana five or six times this year, and it never failed to make us happy. It’s a little slice of home in a part of the world where “run for the border” has an entirely different connotation. But now that we’re leaving, I can’t help but wonder if I even remember what it should taste like. I guess I’ll find out soon.