A Plea to Ethnic Restaurants Everywhere: Give Authentic Foods a Fighting Chance

I recently went to Mercadito's Taqueria in Midtown. It had been a long day at the office and a solid, close-by taco lunch was in order. I pulled up the menu online and the blood drained from my face. "Where are the rajas?" I thought.

I quickly dialed the main number to Mercadito and a bubbly young lady, Victoria, answered. Knowing full well that I would unlikely be speaking to, say the chef who could give me answers, I dismissed the thought of drilling her further than simply asking "did you guys take the raja tacos off the menu?"

Nonetheless, I was hungry and had someone else's order to pick up as well, "just forget about it for now, order something else and ask when you get there," I said to myself.

For those who don't know, the term rajas means strips, but when you walk into a taqueria (or any Mexican establishment, for that matter) rajas refers to stripped chiles, sliced and roasted (charred a little too, if they're done right). Mercadito's Taqueria had some that were spot on.

I walked in to pick up my order and the man working the front said it would be just five more minutes, "no problem," I thought "I'm in no rush." In the meantime, I scoured the chalk board menu thinking, hoping, praying I maybe missed the most authentic dish the taqueria offered.

Not there either. I finally spoke up and asked, "You guys used to make the raja tacos... what happened to those?" Alejandro, very nice and noticeably embarrassed that my order was taking longer than five minutes said, "the chef is the main man and he took them off. I don't know why... they were doing really well."

Saddened, I told him, "it's a big mistake to walk into a taqueria and not see rajas on the menu, it was the most authentic thing you offered." Alejandro seemed to agree.

My co-worker and I ended up deciding on tortas (a Mexican sandwich, if you will) for lunch. She picked a torta al pastor (spit-style pork, something of a secret marinade because it often varies and grilled pineapple) while I decided on a torta de carnitas (melt-in-your-mouth pork, typically fried a little, then braised or slow cooked). While they were both very tasty and most definitely served to satisfy our work-related stresses, it just wasn't the same.

Disappointed still, I was a Mexican woman on a raja mission and I wanted to get to the bottom of this -- time to do some research. I made a couple phone calls and after asking bubbly Victoria for a slew of people, she finally put Mercadito's general manager, Santiago Corona, on the line.

After explaining myself, Mr. Corona apologetically said, "the rajas will probably be back next year - it has come and gone in the past few years." Of course, my first question was why.

Before I go any further though, this type of dish is essential to a Mexican restaurant. It's the equivalent to walking into a Thai restaurant and not having pad thai (or some variation of it) on the menu. It's also the same as fried chicken and biscuits missing from a Southern restaurant's menu. While I realized maybe not all Mexican restaurants (big or small) in Miami may not be as authentic as they could be, I developed a theory: true authenticity is risky.

Sure, I could go to a ma-'n-pa place on Calle Ocho or Homestead to get what I wanted, no problem, but it shouldn't have be that way.

It's a shame, really. Regional cuisine, when done right, can be a whole world of new flavors -- and if we had it available without restaurant owners worrying if it'll do well, Miami could offer a tremendously more dynamic (dare we say, better) food and dining experience.

Mr. Corona said, "the chef [and owner, Patricio Sandoval] takes things away for variation" and frequently changes recipes. "It's like the Shady Gato cocktail, it was taken away for a year and now it is back."

In that case, Mercadito family (and ethnic restaurants everywhere), if you can bring back the Shady Gato, do everyone a favor and bring back the rajas.

"I have my personal favorites too," Mr. Corona told me, "and I cry when they're taken off the menu ... I also throw a welcome party when they bring it back."

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