"Presto-Change-O" fantasies aside, Katrina's legacy will be with us for quite a long time, and food that tastes like home for the thousands of new Latinos working in town is part of it. No matter how successful Jefferson officials are at ridding their busy intersections and parking lots of really good, inexpensive tacos, the future of authentic Latino cooking is already evolving into its next stage with the taquerias opening in storefronts throughout the metro area.
One of the best examples is Taqueria Guerrero Mexico, which is a lot like a taco truck that parked inside a restaurant, lost its wheels, expanded its menu and set up a flat-screen TV for soccer games and Mexican soap operas. The restaurant is run by the Martinez family, first-time restaurateurs originally from Mexico's state of Guerrero. They have lived in New Orleans for years, and some family members worked in the kitchens of the city's pre-Katrina Mexican restaurants. But the dishes here taste a lot more like home cooking than the Tex-Mex stuff that dominated the local salsa scene before the storm. Encouraged by the surge in the Latino population in the city, they opened their restaurant in April, taking over the gutted New York Pizza location in Mid-City.
The tacos here aren't the best in town, an accolade that probably belongs to another post-Katrina taqueria, Tacos San Miguel on North Claiborne Avenue near Elysian Fields. Their tortillas and selection of meat fillings really can't be beat. Taqueria Guerrero Mexico still has some pretty good tacos and good house-made tortillas as well. But the restaurant's particular contribution to the ongoing Latino food education of New Orleanians' palates comes via the great variety of dishes on the menu. It serves the normal burritos and tortas (basically, a burrito in bread instead of a tortilla), but also soups, whole fried fish and daily specials like chile rellenos and milanesa, a wafer-thin, breaded steak.
Chips and salsa are free and arrive immediately, sometimes before the menus. The salsa changes day by day, but it is invariably very hot and very good. There are other, thinner salsas on the table sitting in diner-standard ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, so there are plenty of options for spicing up your meal.
The enchiladas here hardly need any help, though. The platter-sized meal has a half-dozen small tortilla rolls stuffed with smooth, white cheese and chicken and coated in an aromatic, mildly spicy but richly flavorful sauce. A big, green smile of sliced avocado on top and a scatter of crisp onion and cilantro finish it off.
The beef and chicken soups are particularly good, complete with sides of moist rice, beans and a foil package of warmed tortillas. The beef soup is made with a hunk of fatty brisket and a clear, light broth, while the chicken version arrives with half a bird on the bone floating in a salty bath with a few potatoes and onions. The chicken is so tender that it can be taken apart and eaten with nothing more than a soup spoon. The menudo, a tripe soup, is widely reputed to be a hangover cure, and in fact there do seem to be more orders of them making the rounds during Saturday and Sunday lunch than at any other time of the week. The broth certainly packs a punch, but hangover or no, I still find tripe an acquired taste best acquired by others.
The pupusas here seem like they were made by someone more accustomed to preparing quesadillas. A Honduran standard, the pupusas made in this Mexican kitchen are packed with so much melted cheese that it seeps out of the sides in white, gooey torrents. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a different take on the normally more restrained pupusa experience.
Most of the time, the beans served as a side dish are perfectly reasonable renditions of the smooth refried variety. Other times, they are clearly Blue Runner red beans straight from the can, a staple I know well enough from my own kitchen to spot in the dark. Sometimes the daily specials also seem like accommodations to local customer demand. The pollo frito -- fried chicken -- is just like many another bird around town, except that it's served here with the ubiquitous corn tortillas instead of cornbread.
The chile relleno special one day was small but delicious, covered with a mellow, smoky, orange-colored salsa and stuffed with soft, melted cheese. The huge, dense and tightly wrapped burritos are meals all on their own, and the pork tamales -- small, moist, meaty -- are a steal at $4 for two with all the side items. It's hard to spend more than $10 here on a meal unless you're out to hurt yourself.
The restaurant serves a small selection of frescas, those uniquely refreshing, fruity Mexican soft drinks, and the alcohol policy is BYOB.
There is no missing that this is a family-run business. The place can get very busy at the lunch rush, when the one waitress is sometimes assisted by a grade school girl who also helps out making change at the cash register. At night, near closing time when the same staff has been working since before lunch, the waitress might even fall into a chair at your table to puzzle through some food translations with you. That's New Orleans-style hospitality, no matter what is on the menu.