Growing up in Oregon, my first grown-up food was a bean burrito. My peers and I studied Spanish in elementary school and, as teenagers, enjoyed fine tequilas with mariachi musicians as often as we chugged cheap beer to blaring hard rock.
Like many west coast transplants, I was a bit disoriented my first few times at local Mexican chains Dos Reales and El Toro. Never before had I experienced so much cheese and sauce and such bland flavors with my Mexican food. Certainly not anywhere I had traveled throughout the various regions of Mexico.
With time I’ve come around to what I like to call Midwestern-Mexican food, as I’ve come around to other minor cultural differences that make the transcontinental move initially challenging. Fortunately, Dos and El Toro are not the only game in town for Mexican food, despite their many hometown fans. West Coast natives and others seeking a greater variety of ingredients and flavors can also go to Fiesta Café, located centrally on First Street between Springfield and University avenues, for less midwesternized Mexican-American fare.
While all the large-scale Mexican eateries in town offer dozens of choices – many of which are the same ingredients combined differently, to be sure – Fiesta offers a few options exclusively. These are favorites of mine, and worth trying out if you think Mexican food is all burritos and nachos (neither of which are particularly Mexican, by the way). One of these is the sope, a sort of tostada with your choice of meat and beans, lettuce, onion, white cheese and green sauce on top of a thick corn base. You can get one of these for $4 ($3 without meat); add a taco or enchilada a la carte, and you have a fine, well-priced meal.
Another Fiesta exclusive is fish tacos. I was surprised that Dos and El Toro offer shrimp but no fish, because shrimp burritos are, well, a taste I have not yet acquired, and certainly not very Mexican. On the other hand, in many areas of Mexico fish is a staple, indeed the most likely tortilla filling, and on the U.S. west coast fish tacos and burritos are popular at both small and large-scale eateries. The fish tacos at Fiesta are available with breaded or fried codfish, on corn or flour tortillas and with or without a sweet (but not too sweet!) slaw dressing. Try one the next time you go. It’ll set you back $2.55 and with a $3 sope you’ll be full for less than $6.
Certainly, Fiesta is not perfect. The cheese sauce is not extraordinary; the bathrooms tend to be miserably cold in the winter; the combination dinner and margarita prices are high-end; and some meat dishes that require a lot of attention might be found lacking.
But if you want to explore some different choices and more balanced and nutritious Mexican food, then Fiesta is your place. You can get your tacos, burritos, chimichangas, enchiladas, fajitas and so on with chicken, shredded or ground beef, pork, chorizo, steak, flanksteak chipotle or carnitas; with whole black or pinto beans. In many cases you have a choice of corn or flour tortillas, and the vegetarian fajita wrap (a popular choice, and only $5) comes on a large spinach or tomato tortilla. You don’t have to ask for mild and hot salsas with your chips, and sour cream is always available on the side.
With the sun peaking out every now and again, it’s also time to think about places to eat outside. Besides the two large dining rooms and cozy bar seating, booths are also available outside all spring and summer. So when lazy summer days get rolling, and you lose your appetite for enchiladas swimming in nacho cheese sauce (or the wonders they do for your figure), then get a large serving of the delicious guacamole and some sangria on a weekend at Fiesta. Try once more to get in touch with the less Midwestern of Mexican-American food.