There is a common misunderstanding that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican equivalent of the American Fourth of July. Actually Mexican Independence Day is September 16th (Dieceséis de Septiembre) and it is a really big national holiday in Mexico. On the other hand, Cinco de Mayo memorializes the victory of a seriously outmanned Mexican army fighting an invading French force in the city of Puebla. The event is celebrated in Puebla, but the holiday really got its start among Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles and other Western and Southwestern cities around the time of the American Civil War (1860-1865) The purpose of the celebration was to demonstrate native pride among the Mexican immigrants. Over time the day has come to be celebrated in much of the United States, and now has seen retrograde movement into Mexico where it is increasingly celebrated.
My own view is that the day has become popular because it provides an excuse to celebrate spring, drink your share of Coronas and/or margaritas, and eat lots of tacos and chips and salsa. That seems reason enough, and I plan to celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year.
Even though Mexican beer (Tecate, Corona, Bohemia, Dos XX, Negra Modelo) is probably the most popular alcoholic beverage for the holiday, there are undoubtedly many pitchers of margaritas drunk before the day is over. These days, many bartenders use bottled margarita mix and cheap tequila. This is a recipe for a not-very-tasty drink that can be used simply to get a buzz (and a headache). A well-made, delicious margarita should be made with fresh lime juice, good quality tequila (preferably “white” or clear, not brown, with the label, “100% agave) and your choice of orange liqueur. Commonly Triple Sec is used, but it is a little harsh for my taste. Cointreau and Grand Marnier are preferable, but my new favorite is Citronge, made by the Mexican distiller of Patrón tequila. You will also need ice to dilute the other ingredients a bit and bring out the flavors. Use coarse salt if you like a salty rim. Just don’t ask me about frozen margaritas – I don’t much like them.
Zacatecas is one of the great colonial cities of Mexico. Shortly after the Spanish conquest, an enormous lode of silver was discovered, and Zacatecas mines provided much of the silver wealth of the Spanish Empire. The city is nested in a beautiful mountain valley with the Sierras nearby. In its heyday, the city was filled with ornate churches decorated with silver, gold, and other precious materials. The churches have been long ago stripped of their riches, but the beautiful buildings remain. Many shops are filled with gorgeous silver jewelry and household goods. There are charming restaurants and cafés along with comfortable hotels. One of the most comfortable lodgings is fashioned from an abandoned bull ring with modern rooms surrounding the still-existing bull ring. You can almost see the toreadors and hear the crowds.
There is now a namesake of this fascinating city. Restaurateur Mark Giffen, a James Beard Foundation winning chef best known for his elegant Santa Fe restaurant, The Compound, has created Zacatecas Tacos + Tequila in the Nob Hill district of Albuquerque. It is a casual space that is popular with students from nearby University of New Mexico along with older patrons. There are lots of choices of tequila, as the name suggests, and you can tailor your own margarita with your favorite tequila and orange liqueur. The food consists of creative twists on old standbys – something you would expect from a chef with Giffen’s credentials and reputation.
The queso fundido is beautifully presented and flavorful. House-made chorizo serves as the base of the dish. It is tasty and not too spicy. The cheese is melted , lightly browned, and appropriately oozy. The dish reminds me of the first time I ever had the dish in a sidewalk café in Tlaquepaque, Mexico over thirty years ago.
The fish tacos are well presented with perfectly grilled fish and well-seasoned cole slaw. The best part is the fresh house-made corn tortillas.
The chicken molé is unlike any version of the dish I have ever had. Topped with a nest of fresh spinach, the tender chicken breast is smothered in molé and surrounded with grilled calabacitas.
All in all, ours was a good dining experience and worth another visit.
juice of 1 large lime
- 2 ounces 100% agave tequila
- 1 ounce orange liqueur
- 2 ice cubes
Combine all of the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake.
- Strain into a 6 ounce bar glass filled with ice cubes. (optional, moisten the rim beforehand and dip in coarse salt.)