Five years ago, I lived in Boston.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was far less adventurous about eating out back then – partly because it was freezing cold eight months of the year, but also because my roommate and I lived in a sprawling (but dilapidated) apartment with a massive eat-in kitchen. This massive eat-in kitchen just begged for group cook-outs, cooking marathon Sundays and many fearless and imaginative culinary experimentation that resulted in lots of home-cooked group meals while it snowed outdoors.
We even had a separate dining room at that apartment, on grad student stipends at that. You’d be surprised how much space you can get when you ignore cracked floor boards and drafty windows. The dining room floors were slanted so much that wheeled chairs would roll down to the edges of the room, even with one of us sitting on the chair. Despite its animosity towards wheeled chairs, the dining room was warm and welcoming and almost charming in its aged, quaint look – and more often than not the consensus among our group of friends was to eat in.
When we did eat out, somehow the culinary options did not always include Mexican fare. Looking back, I wonder why. One reason may be that the mainstay Mexican option locally was more fast-food than authentic, more convenient and crowd-pleasing rather than unique and palate-challenging. I never really took to the cuisine, never a big fan.
When I moved to the San Francisco bay area, I rediscovered Mexican cuisine. Actually, I probably discovered it for the first time – since my brief brush with what I called Mexican food in Boston really doesn’t count. Bay area Mexican food (as well as in LA and San Diego) was entirely unlike what I had experienced before: flavorful, daring and almost bold in the playful twist of textural variations on the tongue: quite the experience on the palate.
One evening, a friend of mine and I went to “Mexico Bakery” in downtown San Jose to sample the amazing sandwiches that the establishment is famed for – their tortas. If this were a Filipino restaurant, the tortas would be eggs with ground beef, sometimes with minced onions or potatoes. But this was a Mexican bakery – and the tortas here are an amazing sandwich, with grilled meats piled high on a freshly baked Mexican bun.
The Mexico Bakery has a whole new take on tortas – make them the size of a human head and win the world record for torta size! As we entered the bakery, we saw the sandwiches being served up, piping hot across the bakery counters. We spied the daunting size and immediately had the brainstorm of ordering one sandwich and splitting it between us.
The choice was not as intimidating as I had anticipated – the clear choice was of course the carne asada – the grilled beef. The sandwich arrived – the grilled meat almost still sizzling on its dedicated bed of shredded lettuce and tomato slivers. The bun was freshly baked, a tiny hint of sweet, and a melt in your mouth texture of buttery, savory goodness.
So we sat at the bakery, amid the chitter chatter of the constant ebb and flow of bakery customers. Families ambled in, relaxedly ordering a variety of baked yummies – pastries, bread and cakes of all shapes, sizes and colors. There was a laid-back and familiar energy, even as the servers hustled to keep up with the never ending stream of endorsement of the quality of their handiwork.
I sipped on my fresh mango drink – the perfect complement to the torta meal that my friend surprised me with. I watched kids run around the bakery, pressing their noses against the glass case that housed the cakes, breads, churros and other miscellaneous sweet bites, pointing absently to their pick of the evening and looking up expectantly at the parent in escort, then hurriedly sneaking a peak at their finger to make sure their furtive glancing hadn’t inadvertently moved their finger from pointing at the correct delicacy of desire.
One little girl with two cute pigtails tied up in thin pink ribbons somehow got separated from her comfort-pack. Attention riveted by the stream of unknown faces, accents and voices, she strayed – hand still reached out where her parents’ hand had been but a moment ago. She looked up at our table, glancing almost quizzically with a slight turn to her head, her stance that of a thoughtful ponderer with the weight of the world’s existential angst on her miniature shoulders. The moment lasted but a fleeting second, as she realized there was no adult hand in hers, and she frantically looked around, wondering whether to panic and cry out, and then just in the nick of time before the shrill shriek of plea could emanate, she spotted her person. Relieved, she retreated behind the mother, peering from behind the shield of comfort, and even daring to smile. I waved a small “hi” and carried on with the relaxed people watching.
Mexico Bakery was an oasis of calm and relaxation, an unhurried meal in the comfort of the familiar and the new, holding still in the current of energetic motion and relishing just being.