Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tostadas La Siberia (Repost)

*just posting this one again cause I wanted them all to be on the same page; it's only 3 posts after all*

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.

The Final Fronteir

"Space. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise it's continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."
Opening monologue, Star Trek: The Next Generation TV Series (modifired from Star Trek original series).
It's been well over 40 years since Gene Rodenberry's vision of the future Star Trek aired on Tv. The iconic mantra "to boldly go where no man has gone before" has become a staple in Americana. 10+ movies later, 6 series later, and countless novels, Star Trek's appeal has only broadened with the recent reboot by director J.J. Abrahms.
In 2010, well past the boom of the space race and the paranoia of the commies invading (at least the Russian commies), we move on to a new age in mankinds ever pursuant venture of exploration. Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Mobile, Virgin Airways, Virgin Records) has spear headed the next frontier of space exploration. Move over NASA, perhaps the real predecessor of the Star Trek universe isn't our government but the Branson owned Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic is the worlds first ever space tourism--ah, capitalism in space, take that communists! Virgin Galactic has announced that tourists flights will be ready (pending smooth testing) to launch in 2011. 2011, why, that's just next year!
Get this, the ships that will be launched into commercial sub-orbital space flight will be named, appropriately, the V.S.S. Enterprise and the V.S.S. Voyager. Both ships share the name with both an actual NASA spacecraft (The Enterprise and Voyager space shuttles, and the Voyager sattelite launched in the mid 20th century) and with starships in the Star Trek Universe, the most famous being the flagship of the show the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701.
So, why am I telling you this? Why am I bantering about Star Trek and space exploration, and virgin mobile and the like. I'l l tell you why. Because it's fuckin' cool, okay?
As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was, and continue to be fascinated by the stars and the cosmos. What lies beyond the Terran realm once captured my imagination and put a choke hold on it that remains to this day. I would later, as a child still, discover Star Trek and fall in love with the series and it's message. I dreamt of exploring space, of exploring the final frontier, of catching a glimpse into a future that seemed unimaginable at the time. To catch a glimpse at the moon from orbit. To fly past the rings of Saturn, to look at the Earth from outside of it!? Can you imagine it. The images engraved in our head of a blue earth with green land and white swirly clouds, suddenly palpable. Suddenly, stricken by the sharp contrast of the blackness and emptiness of space, the maginficence of the Milkyway, and the fieral burning of the sun. For the first time, you could see both night and day on Earth and be subject to neither!
Virgin Galactic has done for my dreams of space exploration what NASA could never do. Put it within reach. Maybe, I won't be courting green aliens, or talking to a Scottish engineer who's telling me that we can't go any faster, maybe I won't be butting heads with a pointy eared little freak who's undeniable logic irks me, or instructing a prepubescant boy to "Engage". Perphaps, I'll never go faster than the speed of light or save a planet. But, thanks to Sir Branson I'll be able to travel in outer space on the starship Enterprise, and I'll be damned if I'm not wearing a Starfleet uniform.

A View from the Other side or The Back of Heads

It's 3:00pm now. I'm sitting in a stuffy room, behind a desk. The air reeks of hormones that 25 semi-damp teenagers are letting out, particularly accentuated by the lack of ventilation. The ventilation is poor; it's a bit warm and I've been staring at the back of heads for about 3 hours now. This is my view from the other side...the other side of the teacher's desk, that is. It's 2010, 5 1/2 years since the last time I sat as a student in a high school, the last time I sat in those wonderful little chair-desk combos that work as chair, table, bed, and chiropractic-miracle worker all at the same time. I am still a student, a graduate student at the University so I guess, I play a duel role. I guess, it's why it feels so weird. Maybe that's why I'm good at what I do; maybe it's why I'm bad at what I do. Not too far detached from the student state of mind, if by detached I mean still almost fully immersed, I come to work everyday at 8:00am (give or take 5, 10, 20, minutes) and stand in front of a class of 15 or so ESL students all eager--I assure you--to learn. Right. Today was an irregular day. Today was TAKS benchmark day. TAKS stands for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. It's the standardized test that we take--or should I say give--the students to assess their knowledge that we as teachers have drilled in the brain for the past couple of years. It's the barometer from which we measure our schools, our districts, our towns. It's how we get funding, how we keep our jobs, how we lose our jobs. When it boils down to it, it's pretty much everything. The morning started out pretty much normal. After a night of tossing and turning, my mind a venerable whirlwind of thoughts that, no matter how hard I try, I can't shut off, I wake up. It's 7:30. I have to be at work (a good 15-20minute drive solely due to traffic) at 8:00. I still have to shower, because I was too lazy to do it the night before after I came home from jogging. What? It was cold, I barely broke a sweat. Don't judge me, you've probably done worse. Eh, what the hell, I’ll stay in bed for 5 more minutes. It's now 7:36am. Shit, one minute over. This could throw my entire schedule off! Maybe, one more minute in bed...I contemplate not showering and using a vulgar amount of Axe body spray deodorant. I decide against it. I hop into the hot shower for an invigorating part of my morning--sometimes, the most invigorating part. Hauling-ass, I get dressed head downstairs, grab a waffle that my sister has made me and head out the door. I jump into my car, pick a song, and speed off into the cluster-fuck of stupidity and carelessness that is the morning rush. I get to work, I'm not early, but I'm not late. I pick up the sacred treasures that are the test exams and answering sheets and I head to my room. Today's the math test, and I have no calculators. Great. Well, they're not my kids. Not my scores. Not my problem. Side note: you don't test your own students on benchmark days; you get assigned kids by classroom. I walk in and begin to separate and count the materials. 25 pencils, 25 erasers, 25 highlighters (why you need highlighters for a math test is beyond me), 25 booklets, 25 answer sheets, Word by word instructions, and...a...a breakfast corndog?! Sweet. I forgot I stuck it in there in the rush out of the teacher's lounge. Maybe, today is going to be a good day, after all. I commence testing, I go through the ins and outs of procedure, take attendance, handout materials, you know: teacher stuff. I sit down. Now, wait a few hours for the kids to finish. I'm sitting behind my desk, organizing my system of filing the tests as they come in and I have a sudden revelation. I'm the test administrator. Sure, I've been a teacher for a full semester already, and I've already administered another test prior to this, but there was something about this particular junction in time, something about this new room, about this new group of kids. Something about the blank stare that their giving me, the zombie like acknowledgement of the instructions, not really listening, but semi-pretending to listen. It reminds me of a certain young gun. He knew it all. He had smarts, a smile, great hair. Oh wait, that was me. I joke, I didn't have great hair. Whatever it was, today felt different. It suddenly clicked that I'm these kid's teachers. These kids--unlike my regular kids--raised their hand to speak, asked for permission to get up. They understood. They, for the mere fact that I was their teacher, their elder, respected me. The rest of the day, is uneventful. It's announced that the students are to stay with me all day. They finish testing about 11am and we don't get out till 3:30. This should be a blast. I don't even have a movie to show them. I have Romeo and Juliet, but that's a drag, I've seen it about 5 times already. Maybe, I'll put on that bootleg of Star Trek I have. I mean, err, that digital copy I have that I received on the DVD combo pack. Yeah. That's it. I decide, instead to read a book. Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. Great read. And now, I'm wasting both yours, and my time. What are the students doing, you ask? Nothing. Most of them have iPods or phone's with music players and they're entertaining themselves with that (thank GOD for technology), the others either asleep or talking, not too loudly, alternating turns going to the bathroom and drinking water, a service I'm more than happy to let them use. Get out of my class you little stinker. Ah, it's three-thirty and the kids are ancy. I let them out. The bell rings a moment after. I hit save.