And a tequila and taco tutorial, of course.
I couldn’t have planned a better welcome to Mexico than our arrival at Bertha’s house in Celaya. While, like she said, there isn’t much to do in Celaya, she and her wonderful family and friends were there to greet us (literally, her dad picked us up from the airport about an hour away) and then they proceeded to cook for us and hang out all afternoon. Also, they let us stay with them the first night!
We began our trip with the discovery that Bertha’s parents don’t speak much English, so our Spanish language hazing began immediately… which was ultimately a great thing as it forced us to practice right when we hit the ground. Bertha’s dad (Jorge) showed us the sign that he’d planned to hold up when he picked us up at the airport. It read: “Rachel & George.” Apparently in the midst of wedding festivities, Bertha forgot Charlie’s name and just assumed that maybe it was George. It was so funny that I made Charlie bring the sign home – our first souvenir.
An Introduction to Comida
Jorge immediately asked if we were hungry (it was around 2:00 PM), told us he was very hungry (in English no less!), and then called home to prepare the women for our arrival. I’d heard that mealtimes in Mexico were a little different so I asked him to explain his typical eating schedule throughout the day. He said he had a light (or sometimes heavy) breakfast in the morning (desayuno) and maybe another small meal or bite before noon (almuerzo, but not in the sense of the Spanish vocabulary word which we all learned in school supposedly meant “lunch”). Almuerzo is a small-ish, optional, mid-morning meal, and sometimes instead Jorge just has light snacks or fruit instead. Around 2 or 3 PM, Mexicans sit down to comida. This is the biggest and longest meal of the day and it can have multiple courses, soups, and maybe even steak. Then dinner (“cena”) is something lighter around 8 or 9 PM for Jorge. Perhaps a salad or tacos, he says…
We knew comida wasn’t going to be your average American lunch when he pulled over at a convenient store and made Charlie come with him to grab a case of Coronitas.
Well comida on this day was no joke. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, folks. Perhaps it was because they had guests (us), but on the afternoon we arrived, there were fresh fruits and vegetables all over the kitchen counter and three types of guacamole (of varying spice levels) already spread on the perfectly set outdoor patio table with a tent in the yard for shade. They also had a lady helping out in the kitchen and outside grilling all sorts of meats and other treats (who we later saw make an appearance at breakfast the next morning). There was a mound of organic Oaxacan cheese (which we would see a lot more of during our trip), homemade pico de gallo, and chalupas (not the kind from Taco Bell!) before our meal even began.
We were introduced to Bertha’s fiancé (now husband) Daniel, who is both lovely, good looking, and speaks great English! Bertha’s dad put on an apron and a big straw hat and manned the grill for a while as we all go to know each other. From a distance we could see meats and other things wrapped in tin-foil, some resting on the coals, some above, but had no idea what it could be… except that we’d heard rumors of chorizo, Charlie’s new-found love.
We were eventually served in a non-stop series of dishes which were passed around the table (deep breath) in roughly the following order: quesadillas (to which of course you have to add salsa, pico de gallo, and grilled onions), chorizo, thinly sliced steak, hot peppers stuffed with cheese, and beans. All after we’d gorged ourselves on the pre-meal treats. When things were passed around a second and third and fourth time, we had to say “no gracias” a lot. Like a lot a lot. Okay, except maybe not to that second stuffed pepper and some more chorizo, because when in
Rome Mexico, right?
And the Drinks…
We had our fair share of the little Coronitas and Victorias and for once I really appreciated and understood the reason for these small (only 7 oz.) beers. Under the Mexican sun, things get hot fast. These tiny bottles are so convenient and almost guaranteed to be cold the whole time you’re drinking them. But sometimes you look like a big American lush when you’re finished in three sips and looking around for the cooler.
Then out came the bottle (or box rather, as it was a new bottle) of tequila. It was Don Julio, with some sort of black leather ribbon tied around the neck of the bottle, from a black box along with some really nice tequila glasses. These are not just shot glasses, guys, and I actually got her one made of crystal from her wedding registry. Bertha proceeded to explain the three types of tequila to us. There’s blanco which is the un-aged tequila and typically clear in color; then reposado which is aged, but less than a year. Finally, there’s añejo which is aged anywhere between one and three years. Okay, so yes I had to google that because after all the Don Julio, I kind of forgot exactly what she said, but basically clear is good, but añejo is also very good.
This black-boxed Don Julio was so easy to drink because it was so smooth (and resulted in little to no hangover), because it was oddly enough it was añejo but filtered and clear. While we were in Argentina, I learned from Bertha that in Mexico people often sip tequila slowly and savor it… because if it’s nice tequila, why would you want to/need to shoot it? (Not that Mexicans don’t shoot it occasionally too!) She also promised me that the tequila at her wedding would be even better than the Don Julio, as it was tailor-made for the wedding couple by special request of a local tequila company that does that sort of thing. She wasn’t lying.
Bertha’s dad then showed us how to make a Paloma, a drink made with a popular local grapefruit soda-Sprite-esque soft drink called Squirt (yes, we laughed at the name too, especially the way they pronounced it in their Mexican accent). Steps: Salt around the rim, ice into the glass, fill with the tequila you desire, then Squirt. He later made us to-go cups of Palomas (which is the Spanish word for both dove and pigeon). For these, he had to break out a new bottle of tequila. Obviously, we’d finished the Don Julio by this time since Jorge and Bertha’s friend, Fer, couldn’t stop filling Charlie’s glass, and, needless to say, he couldn’t stop drinking what he was offered. Wouldn’t want to be rude, right?
And the Tacos… or Gringas
After comida, which lasted from about 3PM until 8PM out on the patio, the family began asking us what we wanted for dinner. What? We’re having dinner too? After all that?! Would we like tacos? Okay, yes, sure, we would like some tacos. After all, you guys know best.
With our aforementioned to-go cups in hand (silly me, asking if it was okay to bring them with us in the car and into the restaurant, ha!) we headed to a place that Daniel suggested in Celaya: It’s a little taquería, it is kind of local and rustic and cheap, you will not need to take your purse, your ID, or anything. The tacos are very good, it is very simple. I love Mexico, you guys!
It was a small little restaurant with about three or four tables, completely open in the front, with one guy cooking, one guy waiting tables, a big jug of horchada, and a woman helping in the kitchen and taking cash. Feeling very Anthony Bourdain (which we embarrassingly said multiple times that evening) and somewhat drunk, we were got very excited about this taquería experience.
The place was simple and covered in a mix of Halloween and Día de los Muertos decorations. Everyone was incredibly friendly and didn’t even mind my constant photography. But then, of course, with the long list of potential tacos, meat options, and some things I’d never heard of, I got flustered and could not decide on what I wanted to eat by the time the waiter came over to our table. I blurted out “al pastor” immediately because really, it’s very Mexican and hard to do well and I’ve dreamed of it for so long, but Bertha said, “No, it’s fatty here. Get something else. You want tacos or gringas?”
Gringo? Gringa? What? Yes, I know, that’s me. Gringa. Oh wait, it’s a food? I have no idea what a gringa is then. Something a gringa would like? Is that what you’re getting? Do you like them? Oh okay, then yes, I’ll have that!
Bertha orders a gringa with steak, I think.
Me, ordering: “Lo mismo, por favor!” [This means “the same,” mom and other people who took French in school]
Me to Bertha after ordering: “Wait, so what is a gringa?” (This whole conversation is more or less in Spanish and/or English)
Bertha, describing gringas: “They are made with flour tortillas cooked with butter [unlike tacos, which are made with corn tortillas] and gringas have cheese on them [as tacos traditionally do not]. I like both. But gringas are better here. I think you will like them.”
Along with our food, on the table, the taquería (like most Mexican establishments) provided cilantro, raw onions, cooked onions, limes, some green, orange, and red salsas of varying heats, pickled spicy carrots, cucumbers, pineapples and onions, all with which to top your gringas and/or tacos. I couldn’t resist using and trying all of them. Gringas are fantastic, by the way!
After noticing that “cabeza” [head] tacos were an option, I had to ask about them. And because I opened my mouth, Daniel said, “Okay, now you have to at least try.”
So yeah, I ate a taco made of what I thought was pig’s head. Incorrect. After eating the whole thing, we found out, mmmm, actually it was cow’s head. Are you even supposed to eat stuff in a cow’s head? It wasn’t bad really, but it did have a weird texture. I didn’t hate it. Don’t worry, at the direction of Bertha’s dad, we added a lot of green salsa and cilantro. That makes it better, right? And we didn’t get sick or anything. Eh, when in Mexico!
By far the winner of the night was Charlie’s gringa made with beef and chorizo. When the waiter asked if he wanted a second one, a nod of Charlie’s head sent the man flying back with another gringa in less than 30 seconds. That’s servicio.
This is it. I am both happy and sad that I tasted it, because it is possibly the best taco/gringa/Mexican food I have ever had in my life. And it’s located in some obscure taqueria I could never find again on my own if my life depended on it. However, just as I typed this, I decided to review the notes I took from my conversations with Bertha and it has a Facebook page! Tacos Chuchin! We may meet again after all…
“Con Brazos Abiertos”
After our fun-filled, tequila and taco-fueled evening, we woke up in the morning to a set table and great smells coming from the kitchen. Bertha served us what she termed a “normal” Mexican breakfast. This meant eggs cooked with pico de gallo, a slice of turkey, beans, a plate of toast with marmalade and butter, a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, a cup of yogurt, and coffee, milk, and cranberry juice. Really, I asked, “es normal?” “Sí,” she replied. I so wish this was MY normal!
Bertha served us breakfast and then she and her mother sat down to eat with us. We thanked them repeatedly, while Bertha asked if we slept well and if Charlie felt okay from all the tequila and weird meats we’d eaten the previous day. (The answer being yes, we felt great.) Her sage advice about tequila: If you drink nice tequila, then you won’t have a hangover. If you drink cheap tequila, you will have the worst hangover.
Before we left for the bus station (to spend a couple nights in neighboring Guanajuato), Bertha’s mother told us we always had a place to stay in Celaya, to come back any time, and that we’d be welcomed “con brazos abiertos!” Which, I’m guessing you can figure out from context clues, means “with open arms!” It was so sweet. She then proceeded to force feed us nectarines and guayaba so we’d have vitamins “to keep away the flu.” We really felt so comfortable and at home with Bertha’s family and were crazy impressed with their hospitality.
We did not feel so comfortable, however, speeding to the bus station as Bertha drove through the city dodging both people and cars and making it to the ticket counter exactly one minute before the bus was scheduled to leave. But hey, when in Mexico!
A Canadian tourist we met later in our trip actually told us that after all of her world travels, she still thinks that Mexicans are the friendliest and most welcoming people. I really wanted to include the entirety of my Celaya adventures in one post, but with all the great things that happened on our first day, I’ll have to save Bertha’s wedding (my first Mexican wedding!) for another post!