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Molcajete: My Favorite Soul Food

Some people overcompensate for shortcomings by purchasing gargantuan SUVs or wearing blinged-out Rolexes. Me, I put an accent on the “a” in my last name. I’m half-Mexican, and proud of it, but that doesn’t really come through in my appearance. Even though I look about as Hispanic as Ron Howard when I go long stretches without adequate time in the sun, the soul food of my heritage resonates with my heart and my palate like no other cuisine in the world.

Whether it’s enchiladas or tortas, menudo or humble street tacos, any Mexican meal brings me back to my roots in a most delicious way. But there’s one dish I hold above all others for its rich soulfulness—molcajete. It’s portions of meats, cheese, scallions, and nopales (cactus paddles) smothered in an earthy, spicy chile broth that’s named after the vessel in which it’s served—a mortar fabricated from heat-conducting rock. The dish is relatively easy to find south of the border, but in my experiences, difficult to get in the States.

To date, the only place I’ve unearthed it in San Diego County is Mi Guadalajara (525 W. Second Ave.), a Mexican restaurant in Escondido sporting a lot of square footage as well as some really interesting architecture and interior design touches. Whenever I go there, I find it impossible to, one, not gaze up at the colorful mural work gracing the high ceilings, and two, order their molcajete.

They offer steak, chicken, or a combination of the two, but carne’s the best way to go. It stands up nicely to the bold spice of the condiment in which it swims, which has gotten increasingly aggressive over the years. The last time I enjoyed it, I left with purple lips and a thin mist of sweat across my brow. It was definitely a case of hurts-so-good.

As is tradition with molcajete, Mi Guadalajara serves theirs with a plate of accoutrements, which includes tortillas, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, rice, and beans. Add in the gooey queso and cactus strips and you have all you need for some killer build-your-own tacos. The only untraditional thing about this dish is the fact it’s served in a faux molcajete that doesn’t hold heat like the traditional stone variety. It’s safer, but leaves something to be desired.

On a recent trip to Tijuana to investigate a craft beer bar recommended by fellow contributor Ian Pike, I was whisked by several locals from said suds-hole to a grand and festive dining hall a few miles away. Upon reaching the middle of the restaurant’s multi-page menu, I found, splayed out like a sultry centerfold, an entire section devoted to different varieties of molcajete.

It sounds kind of silly—maybe it was the effects of the Baja-brewed imperial stout I’d just downed—but I suddenly felt like I was home. That sentiment only grew when I saw a long banquet table of diners all sporting their very own scorching stone cauldrons of peppery goodness. Lots of dishes evoke reactions of “yum” or “wow,” but only one brings on a sense of cultural pride for me the way a molcajete can.

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Some people overcompensate for shortcomings by purchasing gargantuan SUVs or wearing blinged-out Rolexes. Me, I put an accent on the “a” in my last name. I’m half-Mexican, and proud of it, but that doesn’t really come through in my appearance. Even though I look about as Hispanic as Ron Howard when I go long stretches without adequate time in the sun, the soul food of my heritage resonates with my heart and my palate like no other cuisine in the world.

Whether it’s enchiladas or tortas, menudo or humble street tacos, any Mexican meal brings me back to my roots in a most delicious way. But there’s one dish I hold above all others for its rich soulfulness—molcajete. It’s portions of meats, cheese, scallions, and nopales (cactus paddles) smothered in an earthy, spicy chile broth that’s named after the vessel in which it’s served—a mortar fabricated from heat-conducting rock. The dish is relatively easy to find south of the border, but in my experiences, difficult to get in the States.

To date, the only place I’ve unearthed it in San Diego County is Mi Guadalajara (525 W. Second Ave.), a Mexican restaurant in Escondido sporting a lot of square footage as well as some really interesting architecture and interior design touches. Whenever I go there, I find it impossible to, one, not gaze up at the colorful mural work gracing the high ceilings, and two, order their molcajete.

They offer steak, chicken, or a combination of the two, but carne’s the best way to go. It stands up nicely to the bold spice of the condiment in which it swims, which has gotten increasingly aggressive over the years. The last time I enjoyed it, I left with purple lips and a thin mist of sweat across my brow. It was definitely a case of hurts-so-good.

As is tradition with molcajete, Mi Guadalajara serves theirs with a plate of accoutrements, which includes tortillas, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, rice, and beans. Add in the gooey queso and cactus strips and you have all you need for some killer build-your-own tacos. The only untraditional thing about this dish is the fact it’s served in a faux molcajete that doesn’t hold heat like the traditional stone variety. It’s safer, but leaves something to be desired.

On a recent trip to Tijuana to investigate a craft beer bar recommended by fellow contributor Ian Pike, I was whisked by several locals from said suds-hole to a grand and festive dining hall a few miles away. Upon reaching the middle of the restaurant’s multi-page menu, I found, splayed out like a sultry centerfold, an entire section devoted to different varieties of molcajete.

It sounds kind of silly—maybe it was the effects of the Baja-brewed imperial stout I’d just downed—but I suddenly felt like I was home. That sentiment only grew when I saw a long banquet table of diners all sporting their very own scorching stone cauldrons of peppery goodness. Lots of dishes evoke reactions of “yum” or “wow,” but only one brings on a sense of cultural pride for me the way a molcajete can.

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Comments
2

Man, that dish looks absolutely killer! I think there's definitely something to the scorching hotpot. I have had a great catfish hotpot at Que Huong Vietnamese Restaurant, and numerous bibimbap bowls are Korean stands over the years (I love the way the rice gets all crunchy on the stone bowl), but this molcajete would be a new one on me. Next time I'm in the teej for sure!

Also, how'd you fancy your Baja brew? Was it something that you can't just grab on the side of the linea?

June 21, 2012

Hey Ian...I had it at the beer bar you wrote about. Really enjoyed my time there. The beers I had from Baja were quite impressive!

June 23, 2012

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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