September Salute

For chain Mexican restaurants, it's bigger than New Year's in terms of revenues. Their budgeting depends on it. Special events and promotions are brought in, the bartenders get ready to sell tons of Coronas and shots of Cuervo Gold tequila, and the local police are on extra alert. Welcome to America's biggest Mexican holiday -- Cinco de Mayo.

Except in Mexico, nobody really gives a crap about the fifth day of May. It's kind of like Presidents' Day in the United States. You know it's a holiday because the kids are home from school, and there is always some kind of car sale or a clearance at the local department store.

So Macayo's, Manuel's and all you other big chain Mexican restaurants, pay attention. The 16th of September is a real holiday worthy of homage and special events. This celebration -- the commemoration of the war for independence from Spain -- is one of Mexico's biggest days of national pride. It's a day filled with history and festive foods.

In honor of Mexico's first president, Agustín de Iturbide, a wonderful and succulent dish called chiles en nogada was created -- slow-roasted poblano peppers stuffed with fall ingredients including apples, raisins and pears, then topped with a subtle almond-cream sauce, chopped cilantro and pomegranates -- representing the patriotic colors of the Mexican flag. In Mexico, the streets are filled with food stalls selling warm fruit drinks called ponche and warm corn drinks called atole and champurrado, and there is always Mexican pot coffee called café de olla.

Here in the Valley, you can find a real celebration of the 16th of September at local eateries such as Tlacoyo's, La Guadalupana and El Nopalito. The authentic Mexican restaurants acknowledge Cinco de Mayo but celebrate the 16th of September with gusto. Both food and drinks start to appear on special menus in commemoration of this holiday. There are usually special concerts to help celebrate as well.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is like thinking fajitas and chimichangas are real Mexican food -- they are just an American version of Mexican. Try some chiles en nogada and ponche on the 16th of September. This year, the 16th falls on a Monday, so most eateries will be extra-patriotic and festive on Saturday and Sunday, September 14 and 15, too.

If the chain restaurants are smart, they will catch on to the real thing and start celebrating both dates. It just means they will sell more chimichangas, fajitas and Coronas. But anything to make a buck.

Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.


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