I thought that Milwaukee, Wisconsin had spoiled me forever for authentic Mexican food.  Milwaukee, you may ask?  Beer, brats,  liquid cheese, Richie Cunningham, shlameel, schlamazel and all that jazz – that Milwaukee Wisconsin??

Yes, that Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It’s also a city with a small mom & pop (mami e papi?) Mexican restaurant on virtually every corner.  I had previously assumed that it was geography and proximity (or lack of it) to Mexico that left Southern Ontario so void of Mexican cuisine.   But if frigid, lakefront Milwaukee can feel like Oaxaca, then it must be the Canada – U.S border that keeps us a tamale-free zone.  I had given up on finding something more authentic than Taco Bell and Old El Paso here at home.

So I took matters into my own hands.

As it turns out, St. Catharines is blessed with the presence of Los Amigos – a Latin American grocery and sundry store at the corner of Vine St. and Nello.  The first time I walked in, I felt like I had wandered into a shop on the back streets of Cozumel.  The look, the smell, the products, and the sheer volume of goods crammed into what can’t be more than about 200 square feet.  I had no idea that someone was importing and stocking such a great variety of peppers, spices, produce, chocolate, and corn derivatives as this.  I fell in love.  While Tex-Mex is about as close as we get from our local restaurants, one trip to Los Amigos can lead to a great, authentic Mexican feast.

I’ve been playing with enough of the ingredients procured there to have pulled off a few convincing Mexican classes at The Good Earth.  Last week I sauteed shrimp and fresh Chorizo with garlic, tequila, and annato seed to top a poblano pepper, black bean, and corn salad.  I was inspired by Top Chef to make Menudo – a Mexican hangover soup.  However, the thought of cooking and serving tripe was a little beyond my desires, so I picked up some hominy and some guajillo and pasilla peppers.  It was a rich pork broth and some fresh garnish (radish, cucumber, cilantro and avocado) away from a very passable Pozole as a substitute.

Los Amigos corn husks, masa flour, queso fresco, epazote, and chipotle peppers allowed me to make tamales look easy  (I didn’t have the guts to tell my pupils that I had never previously made nor actually eaten a true tamale).  We had fish tacos (O.K, I went a little Cal-Mex on that one.  Thanks Jim, for the inspiration!).  Not only were corn tortillas available at Los Amigos, but they were FRESH!

Finally, they have about 6 varieties of the coarse-sugared Mexican chocolate that would make a Frenchmen scoff but make THE best hot chocolate for churro dipping (which we made, and we dipped!!).  As long as I can use my wily cheffer skills and Los Amigo’s impresive pantry, I shall be able to satisfy my Mexican desires.

Oddly enough, this story has a great footnote.

I celebrated the successes of the Mexican cooking class by going out for Mexican food Saturday night.  As I said, I had given up on finding quality authentic and affordable Mexican fare North of the 49th, but a friend had mentioned a place in Hamilton about a dozen years ago called Mex-I-Can (107 James st. N).  Oh my Mex-i-can!  This place is great 2 apps, 2 mains, 2 Corona, 2 Dos Equis ran us about $65 pre tip.  The spicy pulled pork, the chorizo, and the ‘barbacoa’ beef were outstanding, and the Cuban waitress  actually scowled with a  “what are you, nuts!?!?” look when we asked about ordering the chicken.

What’s more is that the leftovers re-heated beautifully.  Sunday’s lunch was as good as Saturday’s dinner.  I am currently salivating as I type.  Really.  The icing on the cake is that they also have a small store in the back of the restaurant.  Smaller, but not entirely unlike Los Amigos.  This should save you Golden Horseshoe foodies about an hour of driving.

I awoke Monday with a Los Lobos song in my head and a renewed optimism in my heart.  Chow.