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Think outside the bell: 6 true Mexican dishes in Austin

Mike Sutter
The shrimp cocktail at La Catedral de Mariscos (Bejucos) is reminiscent of the one served at a poplar Mexico City restaurant. One ingredient is orange soda.

Many of us grew up eating what we thought was Mexican food, food that had as much connection to Mexico as french fries have to France or Swedish meatballs have to my Swedish ancestors. What exactly was the 'Enchirito' at Taco Patio? Heckifino.

But talk to a person who was born in, travels through or loves Mexico and you'll hear about dishes worlds apart from a No. 2 plate.

We're thinking about sabores auténticos (authentic flavors) as Austin celebrates two Mexican milestones - independence and revolution - with a gala Monday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts (see the box with this story) that includes historical Mexican dishes.

Don't have $250 for a ticket to the ball? Here are six dishes from Austin restaurants that speak to the spiritual and geographical heart of Mexico.

Cochinita pibil at Sazon

1816 S. Lamar Blvd. 326-4395, www.sazonaustin.com . $11.95.

Chef and owner Margarito Aranda: 'A true cochinita is going to be cooked in the ground, in what's called a 'pib,' in an earthen oven. That's the way the Mayans would cook it. The name 'cochinita pibil' is a mixture of Spanish and Mayan, which is 'little pig cooked in the ground.' We braise it in the oven, try to mimic the temperature and the time. We grew up cooking a different type of Mexican food. I was actually born in Mexico, but I was born in northern Mexico, so there's a completely different style. There's more grilling, there's more beef than farther south. (Cochinita) is from the Yucatán. They have more black beans as opposed to pintos. They use habaneros as spices, as opposed to jalapeños or serranos. (Cochinita) is braised in a banana leaf, and it'll impart a little bit of a smoky flavor. We'll serve it with garlic rice, and it's white. That's very traditional throughout Mexico. … There's a side relish dish called 'xni pec' that comes from the Yucatán. It's pickled red onions, habaneros. It's got a Mayan name. "Xni pec" means "nose of the dog." It's called that because with the habanero peppers, when you eat it, it should make your nose run and have it wet like a dog's nose.'

El Califa tacos at La Condesa

400 W. Second St. 499-0300, www.lacondesaaustin.com . $14.

La Condesa chef René Ortiz: 'One favorite for me which is on the menu (at La Condesa) right now is the Califa. That's a restaurant in Mexico City, in the Condesa neighborhood. It's sliced rib-eye that's seared a la plancha, and then manchego cheese that's griddled next to it. And the meat is tossed over it, and the queso becomes chicharron (crispy like fried pork skin). They put this on a very tiny tortilla and then they put salsa on top of that, and the salsa's cooked in the juices of the meat. So when you're there, it's as dramatic and beautiful as it is delicious. The meat is larger than the tortilla, and the cheese is bigger than the meat. You crack the whole thing and fold the meat into the tortilla with the salsa juicing out of it. And that's your taco.'

Menudo at Joe's Bakery

2305 E. Seventh St. 472-0017, www.joesbakery.com . $4.19 for a half-pint bowl.

'Today's the day,' I told my waitress at Joe's. 'Having menudo for the first time.' God love her, she arched her eyebrows and brought a little bowl for me to taste before I committed all the way. Menudo is a fabled hangover cure, a bar snack at closing time, a comforting taste of home for Mex-pats everywhere. But the truth? It's beef tripe. Sure, they're sliced and washed and cooked in a spicy soup stock with red chiles and kernels of hominy, no matter what the purists might think of hominy. But there's no getting around the musky aroma and the bouncy texture. It's cut into sections about a square inch wide, a smooth alabaster white on one side, shaggy on the other side like a bank of sea anemones in a salty red lagoon. The more I ate, the more I warmed to the flavor and primal texture. A colleague told me the smell of menudo being made in the kitchen - like being trapped in an elevator full of shoes - will drive everybody out of the house. But sitting down to a bowl of it, that's the thing that pulls everybody back in.

Pollo de Mole Poblano at Fonda San Miguel

2330 W. North Loop Blvd. 459-4121, www.fondasanmiguel.com . $18.50.

Fonda San Miguel chef de cuisine Jeff Martinez: 'In Mexico, the most traditional way of cooking it would be to boil the chicken and then use the stock that's left over in the mole (MO-lay) sauce, which is a combination of chiles, ancho chiles, chocolate, different kinds of spices, the chicken stock. It's all ground up. There's seeds, there's pumpkin seeds sometimes in certain moles. We use sesame seeds in ours, peanuts. Then we take the finished mole sauce and coat the entire chicken with it. And that comes with white rice and black beans. It's an education, how diverse interior Mexican food is. Just learning the different moles, the ones from Oaxaca. the mole we have here from Puebla, on our regular menu. But then on our Sunday brunch, sometimes we'll have mole costeño, mole amarillo, mole verde. There's just so many of them.'

Shrimp cocktail at La Catedral de Mariscos (Bejucos)

2711 E. Cesar Chavez St. 476-7878. $6.99 for the medium size.

American-Statesman metro reporter Jeremy Schwartz worked in Cox Newspapers' Mexico City bureau for four years. He said Austin's La Catedral de Mariscos comes close to re-creating the shrimp cocktail he ate at mercado stalls around the Mexican capital. 'It was surprising to me the first time I encountered Mexican shrimp cocktail, because you have this image of it as a red cocktail sauce and some cold shrimp hanging off a cup. But it has all these flavors. You wouldn't think that Mexico City, being landlocked and so hard to get to, that this would be a place to find great shrimp cocktail. We used to go to this place in Coyoacán, this mercado. There was this outdoor restaurant called El Jardin del Pulpo, Garden of the Octopus, and they were famous for shrimp cocktail. They had gotten (the sauce) right somehow, the tomatoes, the onions, the cilantro and the ketchup, who knows? It was like a guarded secret. It almost had this mythic quality. You would always hear that the secret ingredient was orange soda. (At El Catedral de Mariscos) you've got cilantro, a lot of onion, some good-sized pepper. Your last bite always seems to be better than the first. This one gets spicier the farther down you go. The other thing I had to learn was to eat it with saltines.' Schwartz asked the waitress, '¿Hay refresco de naranja en esto?' ('Is there orange soda in this?') The answer put the Austin dish even more in line with its Mexican counterpart: 'Si.'

Tacos al pastor at Rosita's Al Pastor

A trailer at 1911 E. Riverside Drive . $1.50 on a corn tortilla, $1.75 on flour.

These trailer tacos al pastor are gateways to the true Mexican food experience, cheap and wrapped in familiar tortilla form. A varnished shade of red, the meat is usually cooked on an upright rotisserie spit called a 'trompo' for its spinning-top shape. My Tru-Mex confidantes hesitated to recommend local al pastor because so many places don't use the trompo. But one place came up almost every time: 'There's that little trailer off Riverside. I don't know what it's called.' It's called Rosita's Al Pastor, in the parking lot of a shopping center that includes a Family Dollar store and the trailer's mothership restaurant with its sign that reads simply, 'Al Pastor.' Traditionally, the dish uses pork that's rubbed with or marinated in chiles (guajillo, ancho, pasilla or others) and sometimes pineapple juice, layered on a spit and roasted, then sliced to order like a Greek gyro or Middle Eastern shawarma. It's sprinkled with onion and cilantro. Some places add chunks of cooked pineapple, but not Rosita's trailer. On a visit last week, the pork had just started to caramelize, some of it crunchy and a little sweet. Careful not to overdo the spicy green or red-orange salsas. Let the fatty pork, the sting of the onions, the bitter notes of cilantro and the dusty fluff of a flour tortilla (yes, flour instead of corn) do the talking. In Spanish.

Sabores Auténticos de México / Authentic Flavors of Mexico

The event: A gala to celebrate the bicentennial of Mexican independence from Spain and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. The black-tie event includes a VIP reception (requires VIP ticket) with hors d'oeuvres and the debut of Diana Kennedy's book 'Oaxaca al Gusto.' The main program includes the Authentic Mexican Restaurant Awards for sites in Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, along with live music and a dinner prepared by local chefs David Garrido (Garrido's), Jeff Martinez (Fonda San Miguel) and others.

When: Monday. VIP reception starts at 6 p.m. Awards, dinner and music portion starts at 7 p.m.

Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $250, $400 VIP. Tickets at www.thelongcenter.org/ticketing.aspx .

Info: www.saborestexas.org

Cooking class: Fonda San Miguel Diez y Seis Celebration

The class: Fonda San Miguel exceutive chef Miguel Ravago and chef de cuisine Jeff Martinez will cook and teach from a menu that includes sopes with salsa roja, tamal con rajas, gazpacho, duck in pumpkin-seed mole and more.

When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Sept. 16

Where: Central Market Cooking School, 4001 N. Lamar Blvd.

Cost: $60, Fonda San Miguel

Reservations: 206-1014