So we’re window shopping for a eating place in beautiful Charlottesville, Va., home of Tom Jefferson’s University of Virginia. The blinking neon sign attracted us: “Buena Comida Mexicana.” That’s it. Good Mexican Food. They could have used “Great Mexican Food,” but this spot was too humble for that.
So we’re window shopping for a eating place in beautiful Charlottesville, Va., home of Tom Jefferson’s University of Virginia. We love college towns. The restaurants always are eclectic — and cheap. (They’re competing with campus “institutional” fare.)
The blinking neon sign attracted us: “Buena Comida Mexicana.” That’s it. Good Mexican Food. They could have used “Great Mexican Food,” but this spot was too humble for that.
Inside, we looked for a menu. The greeter just laughed. No menus. Our faces dropped as if we were entering a Latino twilight zone.
We have these American liberty traditions that, well, get in the way of our freedom. There are many places on earth foreign to menus. You get what they want you to eat. Period. Who knows better than the chef? No goofy foreign-sounding fakery here.
No menu guarantees your food will be fresh — it’s all they make. There’s none of that guessing (and always being wrong).
I posed to the waitress: “What if we don’t like it?
She sighed, as if she answers this a hundred times a shift.
“Come back tomorrow. We’ll have something different,” she said. She meant it.
So we took the $10.95 plunge. The food streamed out of the kitchen, everything Mexican we’ve ever eaten. No problem if you didn’t like the crab quesadillas. Tamales followed, with the corn husks.
We felt liberated from menu tyranny. Each course was a surprise. I imaged the chef out back peeking out the door as we squealed in excitement.
After a few dishes things become blur. Except that everything was authentic, down to the cumin seeds in the grilled chili adobo.
Oh, there is something. They make their own tortilla chips from masa harina, all fresh and fried and crisp. But you won’t find a drop of the usual salsa on the table.
Instead, our chef that day served finger bowls of chile de maní. This is a peanut dipping sauce all the craze in Mexico. What a relief from the usual salsa dipper just this side of ketchup.
Of course, we scarfed it up and asked, politely, for more.
Chef Miguel came out.
“No mas,” he said. Our waitress translated we’ll need the room for the rest of the meal.
I imagine we were half way through the food parade when we were full. I stood up, waved my arms and yelled “no mas.”
Miguel returned, shook our hands and, incidentally, pocketed our tip. I managed to extract from his mole-scarred hands the recipe for his good bordering on stupendous dipper.
P.S. I checked on the Internet and discovered Buena Comida Mexicana is no mas. Oh well. At least we got a taste.
SALSA DE MANI
1/3 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoon chipolte pepper sauce
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons honey
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
Add water to peanut butter and stir. Stir in other ingredients. Serve in small bowls.
Notes: This improves over time. It makes an excellent dip for chilled, julienned vegetables. Chipolte (smoked) pepper sauce is available in the Mexican-foods section. Look for San Marcos, La Costena or Herdez brands.
Jim Hillibish writes for The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.