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Impress of Mexico
Running through all the fabric of San Francisco's history is the thread of Mexican and Spanish romance and tradition, carrying us back to the very days when the trooper sent out by Portola first set eyes on the great inland sea now known as San Francisco Bay. It would seem that the cuisinaire most indelibly stamped on the taste of the old San Franciscan would, therefore, be of either Spanish or Mexican origin. That this is not a fact is because among the earliest corners to California after it passed from Mexican hands to those of the United States, were French and Italian cooks, and the bon vivants of both lands who wanted their own style of cooking. While the Spanish did not impress their cooking on San Francisco, it is the cuisine of the Latin races that has given to it its greatest gastronomic prestige, and there still remains from those very early days recipes of the famous dishes which had their beginnings either in Spain or Mexico.
There is much misconception regarding both Spanish and Mexican cooking, for it is generally accepted as a fact that all Mexican and Spanish dishes are so filled with red pepper as to be unpalatable to the normal stomach of those trained to what is called "plain American cooking." Certain dishes of Mexican and Spanish origin owe their fine flavor to discriminating use of chili caliente or chili dulce, but many of the best dishes are entirely innocent of either. The difference between Spanish and Mexican cooking is largely a matter of sentiment. It is a peculiarity of the Spaniard that he does not wish to be classed as a Mexican, and on the other hand the Mexican is angry if he be called a Spaniard. But the fact remains that their cooking is much alike, so much so, in fact, as to be indistinguishable except by different names for similar dishes, and frequently these are the same.
The two famous and world-known dishes of this class of cooking are tortillas and tamales. It is generally supposed that both of these are the product of Mexico, but this is not the case. The tamale had its origin in Spain and was carried to Mexico by the conquistadors, and taken up as a national dish by the natives after many years. The tortilla, on the other hand, is made now exactly as it was made by the Mexican Indian when the Spanish found the country. The aborigine prepared his corn on a stone metate and made it into cakes by patting it with the hand, then cooked it on a hot stone before an open fire. It is still made in that manner in the heart of Mexico, and we could tell a story of how we saw this done one night in the midst of a dense tropical forest, while muleteers and mozas of a great caravan sat around their little campfires, whose fitful light served to intensify the weird appearance of the shadows of the Indians as they passed to and fro among their packs, but this is not the place for such stories.
Of the old Mexican restaurants, those of us who can look back to the days of a quarter of a century ago remember old Felipe and Maria, the Mexican couple who kept the little place in the alley back of the old county jail, off Broadway. Here one had to depend entirely upon sentiment, or rather sentimentality, to be pleased. The cooking was truly Mexican for it included the usual Mexican disregard for dirt. Chattering monkeys and parrots were hanging around the kitchen, peering into pots and fingering viands, and they served to attract attention from myriads of cockroaches that swarmed about the walls. One could go to this place just on the theory that one is willing to try anything once, but aside from its picturesque old couple, and its Dantesque appearance, it offered nothing to induce a return unless it was to entertain a friend.
Everyone who lived in San Francisco before the fire remembers Ricardo, he of the one eye, who served so well at Luna's, on Vallejo and Dupont streets. Ricardo had but one eye but he could see the wants of his patrons much better than many of the later day waiters who have two. Luna's brought fame to San Francisco and in more than one novel of San Francisco life it was featured. Entering the place one came into the home life of the Luna family, and reached the dining room through the parlor, where Mrs. Luna, busy with her drawn work, and all the little Lunas and the neighbors and their children foregathered in the window spaces behind the torn Nottingham curtains which partially concealed the interior from passers on the street. The elder sons and daughters attended to the wants of those who fancied any of the curios displayed in the long showcase that extended from the door to the rear of the room.
Passing through this family group one came to the curtained dining room proper, although there were a number of tables in the family parlor to be used in case of a rush of patrons. Luna's dinners were a feature of the old San Francisco. They were strictly Mexican, from the unpalatable soup (Mexicans do not understand how to make good soup) to the "dulce" served at the close of the meal. First came the appetizers in form of thin slices of salami and of a peculiar Mexican sausage, so extremely hot with chili pepino as to immediately call for a drink of claret to assuage the burning. Then came the soup which we experienced ones always passed over. The salad of modern tables was replaced by an enchilada, and then came either chili con carne or chili con polle according to the day of the week, Sundays having as the extra attraction the chili con pollo, or chicken with pepper. In place of bread they served tortillas, which were rolled and used as a spoon or fork if one were so inclined. Following this was what is known among unenlightened as "stuffed pepper," but which is called by the Spanish, from which country it gets its name, "chili reinas." To signify. the close of the meal came frijoles fritas or fried beans, and these were followed by the dessert consisting of some preserved fruit or of a sweet tamale. Fifty cents paid the bill and a tip of fifteen cents to Ricardo made him as happy and as profuse with his thanks as the present day waiter on receipt of half a dollar.
Accepting Luna's as the best type of the Mexican restaurant of the days before the fire, our inquiry developed the fact that the dish on which he specialized was chili reinas, and this is the recipe he used in their preparation:
Roast large bell peppers until the skin turns black. Wash in cold water and rub off the blackened skin. Cut around the stem and remove the seed and coarse veins. Take some dry Monterey cheese, grated fine, and with this fill the peppers, closing the end with a wooden toothpick.
Prepare a batter made as follows: Beat the yolks and whites of six eggs separately, then mix, and stir in a little flour to make a thin batter. Have a pan of boiling lard ready and after dipping the stuffed pepper into the batter dip it into the lard. Remove quickly and dip again in the batter and then again in the lard where it is to remain until fried a light, golden brown, keeping the peppers entirely covered with the boiling lard.
Take the seeds of the peppers, one small white onion and two tomatoes, and grind all together into a pulp, add a little salt and let cook ten minutes. When the chilies are fried turn the remainder of the batter into the tomatoes and boil twenty minutes, then turn this sauce over the peppers.
This is a most delicious dish and can be varied by using finely ground meat to stuff the peppers instead of the cheese.
Mexican restaurants of the present day in San Francisco are a delusion, and unsatisfactory.