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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Scene in South Bend: Little Mexico is a west side gem of real Hispanic food


A trip to Martin’s “Hispanic food” corridor is a disappointment and a half, to say the least. Tucked between Mission Foods’ flour tortillas and Mrs. Renfro’s Gourmet Food Nacho Cheese Sauce, Taco Bell’s Taco Seasoning makes an appearance. Not to insult people who enjoy their cheap, sour-cream-filled monstrosity, but saying that Taco Bell is Hispanic is like saying Chicago deep-dish pizza is Italian. It’s just not.

After making my heart suffer such a toll, I decided to redeem myself — and my stomach — by delighting in some real — I cannot emphasize that word enough — Mexican food. I searched the Internet for the best places in South Bend, heavily rolling my eyes at the lists featuring Chipotle and, yes, Taco Bell. Thankfully, I found several options that promised authentic food, and most of them were located on South Bend’s west side.

Ever since I arrived at Notre Dame, whenever someone mentions “the west side” it is usually followed by comments detailing the area’s insecurity. However, this part of town hosts the largest concentration of the city’s Latino community. Thus, relying on my native Spanish skills and saying a quick prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, I ventured to the exact place others had warned me against. After all, isn’t that what life is all about?

As I left the comfort of the Notre Dame bubble, street signs started changing from English to Spanish, and a sense of acquaintanceship started to fill me. Little Mexico, as the area is known, started to feel like home. The car stopped right next to an unassuming brick building. Its only distinguishable feature was the bright red, green and white sign displaying Chicago’s skyline. Taqueria Chicago looked like the real deal.

Inside, English and Spanish mingled in the air in a perfect symphony, and words like tacos de tripa and torta de carne asada were aggregated into American vocabularies. Around me, both Latino and American families enjoyed their lunch, truly accounting for a melting pot of cultures.

The waitress brought a basket of chips with red sauce. A spicy hit awakened my taste buds, and I knew I was going to have a feast. I ordered tacos with carnita (pork simmered in oil) and al pastor (spit-grilled pork), obviously on a corn tortilla – flour tortillas are blasphemous – and anxiously waited for the food to arrive.

Once I saw my tacos come out, my heart started to sing to the groove of the Mexican rancheras playing in the background. No sour cream, no hard shell, no stringy Cheddar cheese; only meat, onion, cilantro and a lime wedge. Perfection was embodied in those two white plastic plates. I went ahead and dressed the sizzling meat with lime and salsa verde. One bite was all it took to transport me to Mexico.

My mouth watered with every bite until none was left. The greasy streak left by the carnita taco was a telltale sign of my delight. Though both were amazing, the taco al pastor was the winner of the day. Its chewiness, saltiness and sweet undertones accounted for an explosion of flavor. It tasted just like the tacos I had in my last trip to Monterrey, and their price was roughly the same. Worth $4.25, my feast incorporated the three most important B’s in the Spanish language: bueno (good), bonito (pretty) and barato (cheap).

Though I was feeling pretty full, I made sure to leave room for dessert, and decided to satisfy my sweet tooth right across the street at Paleteria and Neveria La Rosita, where they sell ice cream and popsicles featuring myriad flavors. From vanilla and chocolate to mescal and cajeta, anyone’s palate can be pleased at the establishment. I asked the server about her favorite flavor and, without hesitating, she exclaimed arroz (rice). Following her advice I ordered a paleta de arróz and a nieve de tequila because I had to continue with the authenticity streak.

The rice popsicle tasted just like my grandmother’s arroz con leche: sweet and with the perfect hint of cinnamon. The tequila ice cream tasted as if someone had decided to chase tequila with milk and sugar — take it as you will. I was certainly not expecting such a bang, but that drunken ice cream was a lot.

Even though my stomach was at capacity at this point, I would not be content until I had the ultimate Mexican street snack: a mangonada, drinks made with mango sorbet, chamoy sauce, chili powder and mango chunks. They are the perfect combination of sweet, spicy and salty, but they are definitely not for weak stomachs, as the powerful flavor can send anyone to the bathroom.

I wished for the best as I made my way to Los 3 Mangos de Michoacan in Western Ave. Inside, I was met with the potent smell of burning grease, as the food establishment also offers tacos and tortas. However, the restaurant redeemed itself once I had my first bite of mangonada. It was refreshing, sweet and had that spicy kick I was aiming for.

After I had my last spoonful of mango, I realized why people say “barriguita llena corazón contento.” A full tummy really does lead to a happy heart. Once felt balked by Martin’s non-Hispanic products, my heart found what it ached for in Little Mexico.