February 24, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Mexican blues

By |2018-05-04T19:26:55+02:00September 25th, 2011|"In Cucina"|
Maria Espinosa Toledo of Cùcara Màcara.

exican is one food that regularly disappoints in the sad Rome ethnic eating panorama. For the most part, the quality of Eternal City’s south-of-the-border cuisine is an insult, leading so many of us to wonder why.

Can’t blame lack of authentic ingredients, because they’re easy to find, especially at Nuovo Mercato dell’Esquilino (on Via Turati). Part of the problem may be that few patrons know what real Mexican tastes like. Most of Rome’s ethnic food, save for Japanese and Indian, is simplified to make it more accessible to a larger audience.

This means Americanized dishes lord over Rome’s Mexican menus, with nachos as an entree and the rolling out of despicably stale, dry and over-decorated staples. There’s also a widespread tendency to substitute: mayonnaise for sour cream; peperoncino for habaneros and poblanos, chipotles, anchos or pasilla chiles; and bland flour for masa amarilla in the case of tortillas. Add to that suspiciously tasteless vegetables, dribbly salsa, and dubious European “corrections,” like mesclun salad with arugula on tacos. As for condiments and sauces, no comment.

If I can manage to make great guacamole at home, why can’t a Mexican restaurant do the same?

In my endless hunt for a decent burrito, I’ve endured mediocre mole and detestably microwaved enchiladas, not to mention undistinguished pozole, chiles rellenos, and gorditas. A properly topped tlayuda? Not a chance.

I may be overly judgmental, having lived six life-changing months in Yucatàn and Quintana Roo many years back, but I can safely say Rome is a Mexican wasteland.

But every desert has oases, however few. Here is my (very) shortlist of reliable Mexican food addresses.

Bistro by Linda This nice little place between Piazza Bologna and Stazione Tiburtina has classic décor, including ponchos, photos of Chichén Itzà, sombreros on the walls, and colorful tablecloth patterns covering small tables. The cuisine is honest, and a window to the kitchen lets you see what Ermelinda is up to.

The few seasonal dishes on the menu are simple and tasty. The frijoles con carne, fajitas and tostadas are all above average, while the chimichanga (white flour soft tortilla slathered with a puree of beans, spicy chicken, sprinkled with queso before baking) is especially appetizing.

I come mostly for the arracheras, thinly sliced beef cooked on the griddle with tomatillo, guajillo, chorizo, onion and chipotle, served in a molcajete (stone mortar) with crisp tortillas, whose flour and corn are yeast free.

Via Eleonora D’Arborea, 15 C-D. Tel. 06.4424.4889. Closed Monday. Inexpensive.

La Cucarcha I came across La Cucaracha (a dubious name choice!) at a company dinner and expected to find the usual sad pasta salad and Parmesan chunks. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.

Located in the Trionfale neighborhood and open only for dinner (but until late), La Cucaracha serves family-style cuisine, and features some interesting entrees, like sautéed prawns with pico de gallo, arroz (rice) and tortillas or Tampiquena, a grilled beef platter that comes with avocado, beans and rice.

The vegetarian preparations are appetizing the dessert churros are excellent. Warm lighting, shelves upon shelves of tequila bottles, dark Modelo beer, and a looming replica of a Frida Kahlo portrait in the foyer complete the setting.

Via Mocenigo, 106. Tel. 06.3974.6373. Open daily. Inexpensive.

Cùcara Màcara There’s a nursery rhyme that goes, “cucara macara, titere fuè, yo no fuì, fué teté, pégale qua fué” (a kind of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”), and I clearly remember children singing it while they braided my hair on the beach.

In Montesacro, owners Maria Espinosa Toledo from Chiapas and husband Danilo serve the city’s best Mexican food, hands down. In the colorful rooms, patrons occupy tables with glazed eyes and dopey smiles, sharing the Cùcara Màcara secret. These are a mix of U.S. Embassy personnel, Mexican expats and the fortunate few in the know.

The menu features only authentic Mexican dishes, great mole, and real tacos made with carnitas! The other pork, beef and chicken platos fuertes, like the pollo en nogada (chicken cooked with spicy chili, peanuts and pecans) taste like the real thing.

Ask Maria to make you some grilled cactus kebabs, or taste the Mayan chocolate postres. The only truly authentic Mexican restaurant in Rome also blends the best Margaritas I’ve ever had, and there’s talk of an upcoming Tequileria… Que Viva México!

Viale Gottardo, 85/97. Tel. 06.8200.1871. Closed Sunday. Moderately priced.

About the Author:

Eleonora Baldwin lives in Rome dividing her time between food and lifestyle writing, hosting prime-time TV shows, and designing Italian culinary adventures. She is the author of popular blogs Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino and Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine.