I don't think It can ever be said enough. Food is perhaps the quintessential essence of a culture, a city, a state, even a person. Think about it for a second. Think about your childhood growing up. Think about the holidays that you celebrate, the traditions that you hold dear, the late night food runs you have when you've had a few drinks--T.P, Whataburger, Mexican Hot dogs, anyone? i can personally attest for the power of the late night Whataburger meal. I've had some of my best ideas and conversations sitting on the booth in the far left corner of the Whataburger on Jacaman road here in Laredo. Sitting under the American themed Laredo Bucks Hockey Jersey and an old framed newspaper, I've spilled my guts, laughed until it hurts, seen my friends pass out and other unspeakable things, conceptualized the novel I will write that will change the world while in a drunken stupor and established a comic book company. Still doubting the power of it? Then you should stop reading right now and go watch something a bit more to your taste, like Hannah Montanna or that Wizards Show on Disney.
But, I digress, I'm writing this spiel about food because my mom just made me the most amazing tostadas in the world: Siberia style. If you don't know what that is, then 1.) you haven't been into Nuevo Laredo and 2.) your missing out.
A Siberia style tostada is a tostada (see: fried tortilla) smothered in guacamole (see: Avocado and diced tomato), topped with shredded chicken, and then a dallop of fresh cream (Vacita brand please, for authenticity), then topped with another tostada: for maximum scoopability. It's a simple dish. The chicken is simply boiled then shredded, the tostadas come from a bag, and the guacamole is relatively easy to make. But there's so much more to the dish than just the way it's created. It envokes memories. It reminds me of a time when crossing into Mexico wasn't a gamble on your life and, perhaps most importantly, a time when my father was still alive.
My dad passed away when I was in the fifth grade. Heart complications due to a prolonged and untreated battle with pneumonia. But prior to that, we would go into Nuevo Laredo a lot. Both my mom and dad had family over there and we loved to visit and frankly, we loved to go eat there. So, on a sleepy Saturday or Sunday afternoon we'd pack into our 1994 Chrysler/Lincoln (to be totally honest, i don't remember what it was) that we called "El Indio"-- name given to it by my older brother's friend Juan who dubbed it that because it belted out puffs of smoke from its exhaust reminiscent of indian (native American) smoke signals. Anywho, we'd pack into our little green Indio, cross the bridge, and were instantaneously in a different land. A land where every street corner held a Pandora's box of flavor. An explosion of culinary authenticy and local flavor. Elotes preparados, tacos de Venado, aguas frescas, hot dogs mexican style, nieve de limon, chicarones, churros, tacitos con cilantro, cebolla, y salsa. All slathered in either grease or butter and except for the aguas and nieve all containing some sort of spicy salsa or chile. Ah yes. This is one of two Mexicos I remember--the other being a city radiating in it's nightlife and raging with debaucharey, but I'll touch on that on a later date. This Nuevo Laredo was my childhood Nuevo Laredo. Street vendors, family, knock-off toys and bracelets at every turn. Pigeons picking up the dropped elote of a misfortunate consumer in the plaza.
It was a bit further down this same wonderful street that we'll find the origins of this famed tostada I speak of. About three (very long) blocks down; one to the left. "La Siberia" literally The Siberia, no idea where the name comes from, but frankly, who cares? It's menu was, and remains, simple. Tostada, Tacos, Caldo. That's it. You get three menu items and your selection of Coca Cola, Coco Cola Light (diet), or Joya (Manzana, pina, naranja). That's it. No, you can't get wheat tortillas, or organic chicken. No, you may not request it without grease or oil. You're in the wrong place if your looking for babying. Sidenote: although, they will substitue regular avocado for guacamole: probably because its readily available before mixing with said tomato.
Ah. Those were the days. The days that said tostadas were as big as my head and I couldn't even fathom completing one much less two (as I so consumed a few months ago). It was a time when my family was complete. There were four children, two parents. No extended family as of yet, as we were all still young. It was a time when the innocence and ignorance of childhood prevented me from seeing the beauty that lay before my eyes: one of the last times that my family would be complete and unscathed. My immediate family in its purest form. After eating our tostadas, we'd walk around El Centro (downtown) and look at shoes, clothes, and buy food at the local fruit market. Then we'd visit my Tia Eva's and Tio Nono's house. These two people were and continue to be two of the most genuinely good hearted people that I have ever come across. Their home,humble; made of stucco; with two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. Nothing extravagant. No Super Nintendo or big screen TV (keep in mind, this is the 1990's). There was no hint of the age of the internet to be seen; no foreshadowing of the technological revolution that we were experiencing even then. But yet, I would have taken this house and it's owners over the grandest of toy stores. I love being there. In fact, It was the only place I ever spent the night as a child. Food was plentiful. Little tortillas, different from my moms, but equally as good, if not better. Homemade frijoles, huevos, carne. You name it.
Then their was the signature dish. Tia Eva's "Pachucos". Cornmeal dough, kneaded stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and tiny diced potatoes, fried on a skillet and placed to dry in a big bowl. Then you slice it open and stuff it with avocado or chile, or your choice of condiment. Pure. Heaven. I don't think there's a thing in this world that isn't made better by frying it. As a trainer, fitness enthusiast and competitive amateur body builder, that makes me cringe. But as a man who loves food, it warms my heart a bit. Of course, that could also be the heart burn. These little packages of culinary extasy were fantastic. One of my favorite dishes still to this day. Especially, since they were so rare. It was only on special occasions that we'd get these. Then there were the little juices! I almost forgot about these. They're mexican "fruit" juices called Pau-Pau and Frutsi. Think of the Mexican equivalent of a CapriSun. Ah. My childhood was amazing.
These are some of the fondest memories I have of my family and they're still something that I long for today. With the situation in Mexico being what it is--aside from the heavy congestion at the International Bridges--it's harder to go across the border and visit now. It's more of a hassle and at times, more of a risk. La Siberia still stands and still runs strong pumping out gallons of guacamole and crema a day and hundreds of pounds of chicken to its loyal customers. It's menu still as rudimentary and wonderful as it was almost 15 years ago. The street vendors are still there and my Tio and Tia are still as wonderful as they were before. But times are different now. My dad has passed on; my brother has three kids and a granddaughter, my sister has a husband and a daughter, and my other sister is recently married and pregnant. As for me, I'm a graduate student and an English teacher and looking to explore the world. I've traded in my cargo pants and parted hair for jeans and a mohawk. But there are times, like today for example, when food and family get together, for something as simple as tostadas at my mom's house, that brings me back to my childhood. It takes me back to a place where the food was delicious, the people were great, the times were good and nothing in the world was ever going to change that. For a brief moment in time, I, Luis Ramirez, was 9 again, sitting beside my dad at a table at La Siberia eating a tostada and loving every single minute of it.