Viva comida auténtico on Lee Street

by Brian Clarey

Two signs poke out of the sunflower patch in front of the San Luis Mexican restaurant on Lee Street. One, naturally, bears the name of the joint. The other, much larger and higher up, reads: “Authentic Mexican food.”

But what does that mean, anyway? You can’t swing a dead cat by the tail in this town without having it slap into a Mexican restaurant. And as far as authenticity goes, pretty much all of them are staffed exclusively by people from Mexico and points south. And in terms of cuisine, the crisp taco has been co-opted by the American restaurant business. They serve fajitas at TGI Friday’s and you can get a chimichanga at a gas station.

Here’s how you can tell the real deal: For one, the free salsa set before you as you take your table will be hot. Unapologetically hot. The minds in the kitchen will be unconcerned with the timidities of the local palate. There will be more Spanish than English spoken on the dining room floor, and every beer poster and neon sign will be in Spanish. There will be a Mexican talk show running on the television set, the kind where the hostess and her guests will dance a hip-shaking rumba during the bumper music, or maybe the Spanish-language version of “Family Feud.” There will be more Mexican beers on the list than American – San Luis has nine – and there will be things on the menu alongside the usual fare that you might not recognize but should definitely consider trying.

Consider the caldo de mariscos on the San Luis sheet. It’s like a Mexican bouillabaisse or zuppa di pesci, and because it’s like $15 you might be hesitant to order it. Mexican food is supposed to be cheap, right? Wrong, amigo. Corn tortillas are cheap. Ground or shredded beef and gooey white cheese are cheap. But if you want the real deal, then be prepared to shell out a few pesos.

The caldo de mariscos is served in a bowl the size of a paint bucket. Maybe bigger. Swimming in the spicy tomato broth are clams on the shell, whole slabs of white fish, shrimp that have soaked up the heat, large chunks of carrot and dainty octopus curlicues. A cluster of crab legs dangles over the edge.

Go ahead and throw some cilantro on top, some raw onion. Maybe a squeeze of lime. Tuck a napkin in your shirt, grab a fork and a ladle-sized spoon and dig in. Don’t be surprised if the waitstaff watches you take the first bite – some customers have been known to sputter when the burn of the initial taste sets in, and even if you are acclimated to the high heat this dish may make you sweat, cause your nose to run just a bit.

You might want to order one of those Mexican beers at this point.

And don’t get discouraged. Battle through the sweat and burn; savor the succulence of the seafood after its bath in the broth; splatter it all over yourself and the table and don’t stop until your belly begins to swell, which could take half an hour or so.

If you’ve done it right, when you come up for air there will be a modest pile of shells before you and your fingers will be stained with spicy red residue, the same as the stuff that clings to the side of the bowl. Your lips may be slightly numb and there should be a pile of crumbled napkins scattered around the table. If you’ve got any beer left in the bottle, go ahead and drain it.

At this point it’s proper to make the universal hand signal for a check. And it’s okay if you want to watch the end of “Que Dice la Gente?” before you leave.

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