...I have a sad story to tell.
Last Saturday, June 3, 2006, my true love and I had but two things we definitely had to do:
1) We had to attend the annual used book auction and sale at the Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts (even though we have no money, no shelf space and no floor or wall space for more shelves, and even though I have not yet read approximately one-third of the books I own); and
2) Tipped off by Leslee, we had to go to Westboro, Massachusetts, to track down a most elusive prey: the authentic tamale in New England. Apparently, these are available at Julio's Liquors some Saturdays, freshly made by a genuinely Mexican woman.
Please understand. Neither of these was a choice. Both of these were needs. Without meeting these needs, there would be consequences.
Now, in case I haven't already mentioned it, except for a couple of days a couple of weeks ago, it's been raining in Eastern Massachusetts for -- and I'm just estimating here -- well over a month. It has not been misting or lightly drizzling, except during brief intervals. Mostly it has been showering. Pouring. Dumping.
So, the outdoor book sale was cancelled. "It's okay," I told my true love, only mildly twitching. "We don't have any money or room for more books anyway. But let's still go get some tamales."
We looked up where Westboro is. We discovered it to be approx. 30 miles away. We looked out the window. It was, again, raining, but not just raining, no. It had kicked right back up to dumping. People in Massachusetts have many fine qualities, but driving prowess is not common among them, nor is effective road maintenance apparently a high priority in the Commonwealth. The idea of driving 30 miles in, well, driving rain did not appeal. So we sadly decided to punt that idea, as well.
Where should we go instead? There were all our usual haunts, but we were bored with them. Big fat ennui on a day dumping rain is a dangerous thing.
I looked over our collection of paper menus picked up from our travels. I found one for a place called Sierras, very close by. It claimed to offer "authentic Mexican favorites and light, heart-healthy creations."
Yeah, yeah, "heart-healthy," blah, blah, blah. What got me was the "authentic Mexican." Remember, I had been cheated by weather and distance out of the promise of freshly made real tamales, tamales I'd been contemplating for at least two days, tamales of which Leslee had already teased me with a lovely, lovely picture. (Look at the corn husk. Look at that corn meal coating. Now think about that husk between your fingertips, and that corn meal, fluffy but mealy, rolling itself around in your happy, happy mouth. Beauty.) Seriously? All you'd have had to do at that point was say the word "salsa," and I'd have whipped my head around shrieking, "Where? Where?"
Now, I must confess that upon perusing the menu, I did harbor doubts as to the asserted authenticity of the cuisine on offer. "Suiza" and "mole," for example, are not interchangeable terms. "Suiza," which means "Swiss," indicates that a dish will be served in a cream sauce. "Mole" is a whole other thing altogether, a kind of mixture which comes in several different flavors, mole poblano being my absolute favorite, a deep dark fluid from the heart of the ancients, rich with bitter cocoa, roasted ancho chiles hand pounded into dust, and a dozen other mysterious ingredients which might include pumpkin seeds or might include almond butter, depending on who's in the cocina, and which together caress the tongue, warm the heart, and fill the belly with joy and a righteous feeling of purpose. However, I was desperate. And bored. So my love and I decided we would try something new. We would try this place, Sierras of Sudbury, Massachusetts, and see what we would see.
Right. Well. What we ended up seeing, and sadly tasting, was the second worst "Mexican" meal either of us has ever endured. Interestingly enough, it was also the second worst "Mexican" meal either of us has yet eaten in Massachusetts, or even greater New England. We've both had better Mexican food in a New Hampshire strip mall.
First, a word about the ambience. The decor of this place is actually rather charming, in a designer - who's - never - been - west - of - Pittsburgh - reimagining - the - southwest kind of way. Dried plant life of a rambling variety, probably from right here in New England, twines itself picturesquely across the ceiling, and there are lots of evocative skulls and horns among the pink and turquoise. I think the antelope skull with the long horns might actually be African, but I am no expert and, in any case, the vacant eye sockets sort of staring blankly at me across the dining room definitely added something to my meal.
The music was painful. Painful. '80s gay disco -- in Spanish. Anime closing titles pop -- in Spanish. Loud. Very, very loud. "Work it, sister!" loud.
I can't even stand that crap at the gym, where it seems de rigeur for every exercise class. Besides my love of privacy, this is the foremost reason why I don't take exercise classes, and even why I stopped going to the gym, despite my passionate love affair with the rowing machine. Painful -- the music, not the exercise. Physically and emotionally painful. Not appropriate luncheon accompaniment.
At the same time, I cannot tell you how it comforts me to know that other countries have horrible, crappy music, too. All I usually hear is the good stuff, the jazz, the classical, the highly ethnic and the so-called "world beat." I feel somewhat better about this country, and about Japan, knowing that there is also really horrible music to be found in Spanish-speaking countries, if you know where to go for it. I suspect, as here, you have to go to an exercise class or a gay disco. Here in Massachusetts, though, if you miss it from wherever you're from, apparently you can also hear it at Sierras during the Saturday lunch hour.
Still we did not run.
The meal began when we sat down to a basket of tortilla chips with a dish of bland, bottled salsa. It was slightly more flavorful -- and slightly runnier, and sweeter -- than ketchup.
We ordered beverages. It was pouring rain -- did I mention that? -- so caffeine was in order. My love ordered iced tea. I told the waiter I "needed" coffee.
"Cof-fee?" he mouthed back to me, puzzled, like he didn't know what this might be.
"Yes. I need it. You understand?" The way he affirmed that he did made me think that he didn't. Soon, though, he returned with a lovely, slender glass of iced tea and a full coffee service for one -- cup, cream, and sweetener. The iced tea was so good, my love asked for a second, and I ordered a second cup of coffee. And yes, getting our food did take that long.
My love received his second glass of tea and made a funny face.
"Uh --" he said in a choked voice, pointing to the rim of his glass. "Uh -- he fished out my lemon wedge and stuck it back on the edge of the glass."
He was right. Instead of delivering a fresh glass with a fresh lemon wedge, both things apparently precious beyond jewels, the waiter or cook had chosen to remove the well-squeezed wedge my love had used before, pour more tea into the same glass, and then garnish the glass with said already well-squeezed wedge. It was rather disgusting to look at and to think about.
"I'm not even sure I want to drink this."
"But the tea is really good."
"Well, it is your own lemon."
He ended up drinking the tea. And still we did not run.
Our meals came eventually. After scanning the menu carefully, each of us secretly looking for something that the cook, no matter how un-Mexican, just couldn't possibly screw up completely, we had each ended up ordering the same thing: chicken enchiladas, my love's in "ranchero" sauce, and mine in that "suiza" form which is described on this menu as "mole." Yeah, I know; what I said above. Still, I like mole. So, I figured, what the hell?
The plates came. My love's beans looked like snot. He did not touch them. My "black" beans were actual beans, but they were not exclusively black, and they were not refried, which actually made them kind of tasty. The rice, mixed with peas and corn, looked and tasted like it had been purchased frozen, all pre-mixed and everything, sort of like succotash or one of those "stir fry" kits.
Suddenly my love began to laugh. "Taste my sauce," he said.
I took a teaspoon, dipped it in, and licked it. Then I began to laugh, too.
"Ranchero" my butt. It was bottled spaghetti sauce. The "chef" had smothered my true love's enchiladas, which were basically shredded chicken rolled up in store-bought corn tortillas, in bottled spaghetti sauce.
My own plate was slightly less nasty. The mole sauce in which my enchiladas, also shredded chicken rolled up in store-bought corn tortillas, were drowning was a thick and sticky soup of (probably) Doña Maria brand bottled mole poblano paste, ill-diluted. I like Doña Maria. I use it myself, at home. I usually dilute it to a rather thin consistency with water, not broth, then add tomatoes and more bitter cocoa but absolutely no sugar, then cook the chicken (or whatever) into the sauce with potatoes, corn and other vegetables before making enchiladas or anything else out of it, but the basic flavor of it is okay. And I am told by my half-Mexican true love that mole is such a giant pain in the butt to make that most Mexicans don't make it from scratch, either, but also use Doña Maria. I guess Doña Maria is to Mexican households sort of like what Heinz and Kraft are to American households, only slightly healthier since Doña Maria mole doesn't appear to include high fructose corn syrup. However, you must understand that each of our plates was priced at over $10 apiece. We thought it was $14 apiece, but the website says only $10.95; we no longer remember for certain. For that much money, though, anywhere in that range, I expect not only not to be able to tell that something came out of a bottle, but not to be able to pinpoint the brand.
We were very hungry. Our food was disgusting, but not inedible. We each ate one of the three enchiladas on each plate, then asked for the check. Even though the food was bad, we asked to have it packed up because we thought we could pick out the chicken and feed it to our cat, and then compost the rest. (I hate wasting food). The waiter did not know this was our plan for our leftovers, and yet he asked us if we wanted them in the same container. I guess lemon wedges and clean glasses aren't the only precious things at Sierras.
We left, wondering only in what language the waiter and the bartender/maître d' were conversing. It wasn't Spanish. And so ended the second-worst-ever experience for both of us eating purportedly Mexican food.
Now, I know you're going to ask: what could possibly have been worse?
The worst Mexican meal either of us has ever endured was at a terrible, terrible restaurant, a longstanding institution which has since been replaced in Harvard Square by an Indian restaurant we haven't tried yet. That restaurant included beans cooked in so much lard it was all we could taste (and it was rancid), chips so old the corn part was stale and the oil they'd been fried in, where it still stuck to them, was rancid, and the grossest, most institutionalized converted rice I've ever allowed to pass my lips. Frankly, I think we haven't tried the Indian replacement yet because every time we look at the beautiful tiled entrance we relive that horrible, horrible "Mexican" meal a little. This is probably unfair, but that's how bad it was.
Saturday's travesty was not as horrible as our worst ever. It was edible. It was not Mexican. It was hilarious, and very badly though cheerfully served. Afterward, we stopped by Verrill Farm and bought a pot of live wheatgrass for the kitty and a very comforting strawberry and plum pie for ourselves, in butter crust with a thick butter-cookie crumb topping, freshly baked and still warm from the oven. And the next day, we went to brunch at Serafina Ristorante, shockingly enough owned by the same people who own Sierras, and had quite possibly the very best breakfast/brunch experience I have had in New England. Here we were treated to an exquisite citrus salad, a magnificent wild mushroom omelet, perfectly cooked, and a crispy, light Belgian waffle topped with yummy bananas cooked in sugar and butter until soft and steeped in fantastic caramel flavor, but not mushy. The service was slightly airheaded and disengaged, but this didn't matter. The food was wonderful, the other diners were all loudly celebrating festive occasions with as many family members as possible, and the live music performed by the hostess who seated us, a talented jazz singer and pianist, was gentle and lovely. So there you go.
And we did in fact serve the leftover chicken to our kitty. I think I got a little of the "ranchero" sauce on his first serving, though, because after he'd eagerly gobbled it down, he immediately ran down the stairs and threw it right back up.