Language of food translates deliciously

March 20, 2002|By Rob Kasper

WHEN YOU travel, you are supposed to stretch your mind and your stomach. That is the dictum I followed recently while visiting relatives in Arizona.

I gained a few pounds and learned a few new words, most of them coming from the menu of El Bravo, a small restaurant on the north side of Phoenix touted by locals as having some of the best "Az-Mex" food in town.

Although it later turned out to be painfully obvious, at first I wasn't sure what the term Az-Mex meant. It is an abbreviation for Arizonan-Mexican, a wordplay off the conventional phrase Tex-Mex, describing the blend of Texan and Mexican fare.

My ignorance was chalked up to geography. I was visiting from Maryland, where there is not much talk about "Md-Mex" food. Because I was from out of town, it was OK to ask a lot "stupid" questions, and I did.

One of my first questions as I looked at the menu was, "What's a burro?" It turned out that a burro is another name for a burrito, a large flour tortilla wrapped around a filling. The burro/burrito conundrum seems to be similar to the soft-crab/soft-shell riddle that sometimes stumps visitors to Maryland seafood restaurants. It is a different way to order the same thing. But just as there is a little panache to be gained here by saying "sof' crabs" as opposed to "soft-shelled crabs," I think the in crowd of Az-Mex eaters calls its burritos burros. That is what I did too, ordering a beef burro.

Next I struggled with the meaning of machaca. That turned out to be dried beef that has been pulverized, then fried with jalapeno peppers and onions. That is what Raul Cruz, one of the fellows who work at El Bravo, told me. At the beginning of our stay in Phoenix, my wife, older son and I were a bit intimated by machacas. But by the end of our stay, we were ordering machaca burros as though we lived there.

The tacos in Phoenix were different from the ones I have encountered in Baltimore. Mainly, they were better: crisper, cornier, and brimming with tasty fillings, such as shredded beef. This is meat that has been shredded, then fried with onions, and that is sometimes served with cheese. These spicy, shredded-beef tacos were delicious, a long way away from the bland ground-beef versions found in Md-Mex.

Then there were the green-corn tamales, heavenly hunks of masa dough surrounding pieces of chicken, peppers and cheese soaked in corn husks and steamed to perfection. I never did nail down the official motto of the city of Phoenix, but I think it should be "Try our tamales."

During the five days that I was in Phoenix, I visited the El Bravo twice, each time with my brother-in-law, who lives in Phoenix and is a regular patron of the restaurant. El Bravo was not fancy. It sits in a strip shopping area, near the corner of 7th and Dunlop. A truck advertising a carpet-laying service seemed to be a permanent fixture in the parking lot. The truck, I later learned, belonged to the landlord.

One night the restaurant staff at El Bravo let us in the locked door even though it was past 8 o'clock and officially closed. That night we picked up $70 worth of carryout Az-Mex fare; a few days later, we picked up $71 worth of take-out food. As the fellow who handled our order said, "You guys ordered the restaurant."

Even after you have mastered the nomenclature of Az-Mex food, eating it still requires more tests of your intelligence. That became clear to me when the massive takeout orders were placed on the kitchen table of my in-laws' home, and attempts were made to distribute the food to the assembled members of the clan. It is hard to figure out who gets what dish when you aren't sure what you have in your hand. It all looked earthy and smelled tempting.

That is my explanation for how I ended up eating half of the cheese enchilada that was supposed to feed Craig, my niece's boyfriend.

I thought his cheese enchilada was my chiles rellenos. It was a stupid mistake, but Craig forgave me because I was from out of town.

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