Fast, Cheap, and Out of This World

These days it seems as though nearly every woman I know under the age of 40 is pregnant or just had a baby. I've even been asked to be a godmother for the first time. So far, however, I have resisted the urge to have a child of my own. I figure if I end up with a daughter who is half as much trouble as I was, I'll be getting a lifetime of punishment. Frankly I'm not ready for payback just yet. And as my husband of nearly three years is fond of explaining, "We haven't graduated from cats yet."

The truth is we've been enjoying our before-the-kids years by hanging out with other people's children, including a pair of surrogate siblings we met through Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Miami. Becoming a big sister was not so simple. According to the agency, there is a dire shortage of men willing to spend their weekends with underprivileged boys, but there is a surplus of such volunteer-minded women. So while boys often grow facial hair before finding a man willing to commit to becoming a role model, matchable little girls can choose from a long waiting list.

So almost immediately after passing a rigorous screening process, my husband (at the time my fiance) was introduced to a boy who had waited nearly five years for a big brother. Meanwhile, with a tinge of envy, I stood on the sidelines as they went off to race go-carts and watch basketball games. I waited so long, in fact, that by the time I was fixed up with a girl I could have had a child of my own.

Location Info

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Taquerias El Mexicano

521 SW 8th St.
Miami, FL 33130

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Little Havana

But finally I was matched up with a nine-year-old who, I was told, loved cats and baking. Within weeks we were exchanging kitty stories and cookie recipes. When we met in the middle of summer more than two years ago, we spent our first messy days in my parents' kitchen making mango pies. While she was quick to learn the tricks of preparing perfect pastry, I soon discovered that agreeing on what to cook for lunch would be more difficult. "Yuck!" is her response to most suggestions. No fish, no tomatoes, no mushrooms, no pork, no onions, no beans, no salad or greens of any kind. This child wanted nothing more exotic than pizza or French fries.

Pasta with marinara sauce is an easy solution when we have the time to cook at home or to go out for a leisurely meal. But while on the run, fast food must suffice. As a self-confessed food snob, however, I find it tough enough to find healthful and tasty fast food for myself, let alone stuff I'd feel okay about pushing on a soon-to-be teenager.

So on a recent Saturday afternoon, while the two of us were en route to the beach to celebrate my "sister's" twelfth birthday, we found ourselves starving in newly spruced-up North Beach, where dozens of fast-food restaurants -- from Miami Subs to McDonald's to a pizza parlor -- compete for attention. Interspersed are a few mom-and-pop Italian and Cuban joints and a place called Athen's Juice Bar. Hmmm? Health food? We had gone that route before, and I learned that under no uncertain terms is frozen yogurt a substitute for Haagen-Dazs.

Though we were eager to eat and get to the ocean, I wouldn't give in to the lure of the Beanie Babies displayed beneath the golden arches. Not far from McD's, I spied a storefront festooned with pinatas and Budweiser flags that I'd never noticed before. Through the window I could see packets of dried chilies and bottled sauces, with snacks and candies hanging on the wall behind an old-fashioned cash register. A simple menu taped to the window offered more than a dozen varieties of tacos and burritos, as well as a few sandwiches and Mexican regional specialties, with everything priced less than $9.00. Above the doors in neon was the name of the place: Taquerias El Mexicano.

"You know, tacos. Like at Taco Bell? Only better," I told my little sister, hoping I was right.

We entered and slid into one of the restaurant's five vinyl booths, one away from the only other customers in the place, three grinning Mexican guys who laughed with the waitress as if they were regulars. Clearly this no-frills taqueria is not a chichi tourist trap. The tables are adorned with green-and-white checked plastic table cloths and vases of fake flowers. Scratchy salsa music plays from a hidden sound system somewhere in the back. A badly translated menu is way too cheap and authentic to draw out-of-towners looking for frozen margaritas.

Optimistic, we contemplated our lunch choices, listed on a plastic board that hung over the restaurant's grill (the selections were a rough approximation of those on the paper menu). A pleasant young waitress came to take our order. Although not exactly fluent, she spoke English and pointed well enough to explain that our drink options consisted of soft drinks, beer, and bottled sangria, as well as several Mexican refrescos. It was up to me to figure out the nature of those drinks: horchata, a sweet, syrupy drink, is made from rice and milk; Jamaica, sweetened sorrel juice; and tamarindo, a tea-color drink of tamarind juice and sugar. I tried the ruby-red Jamaica and found it to be slightly sweet and deliciously refreshing. My little sister, of course, had a Coke.

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