In the same way that U.S. Chinese restaurants have felt compelled to dumb down their menus with non-Chinese items like General Tso’s chicken, sweet and sour pork, and crab rangoon; so have many Mexican restaurants.

Hard shell tacos are not Mexican, and the only place you will find burritos is in border towns. Yet so-called “Tex-Mex” cuisine dominates the U.S. Mexican restaurant scene to the extent that it hamstrings chefs from cooking authentic dishes, let alone taking Mexican cuisine in modern directions.

It’s true that C-U’s Mexican food has become a lot more authentic in the last couple of years. Tacos of pork carnitas (braised or roasted pork shoulder) or lengua (tongue) dressed “Mexican-style” with chopped onion, cilantro, and lime, are available daily at several area restaurants. On the weekends, it’s now possible to get the classic soup/stew, posole. You also can get cueritos de cerdo (pickled pork skin) tostadas at El Charro, squash blossom quesadillas at Maize, smoky guajillo chile salsa at La Fiesta, and Ensenada-style fish tacos at least one local restaurant, albeit without the fiery arbol chile salsa that would accompany them in Baja.

Little details like the arbol chile salsa can make a big difference. Actual Mexican food is far brighter and fresher than the dull, heavy Tex-Mex fare that’s been shoved at us for decades by the likes of Taco Bell and Chi-Chi’s.

When restaurants feel compelled to mimic chains in order to compete, the little details that give Mexican cuisine its balance and flair are often lost. True, you can find jalapenos in escabeche on the counter at Taco Loco, now Super Taco on Towne Center Boulevard in Champaign. You’ll also get pickled chiles in your torta at El Charro if you ask Alejandro to make yours like he’d make it for himself. However, in family restaurants in Pilsen in Chicago and other Mexican communities north and south of the border, such items are fixtures on every table. There, you’ll also find things like the requisite pickled onions that can lift a taco from ho-hum to mark-the-calendar memorable.

Pickled onions, which consist of blanched red onions marinated in spices and vinegar, take just minutes to make and they will keep for days in the fridge. You can find an easy recipe here. Use pickled onions on tacos, as well sandwiches and salads. And while individually, crema, cilantro, and lime are traditional taco additions, blending them into a sauce (recipe follows) yields something with amazing flavor and versatility. Pair this sauce with pickled onions and grilled or barbecued meat on a corn tortilla, and you’ve got a taco that is nothing short of amazing.

El Milagro in Chicago makes corn tortillas made with area corn. You can find their tortillas regularly at El Progreso, El Charro, and AM-KO. Get the paper wrapped ones, even if they are slightly larger than the traditional taco size. The bagged ones sometimes have an off taste from being packed warm in the plastic. Right before serving, place a dozen of them in a large bowl topped with a plate and microwave for a minute. You can also wrap them in a thin clean towel or cloth napkin and heat them in a steamer.

For the meat, you can buy marinated pork at El Progreso, which is sold as adobado pork. For a more intense flavor, make your own marinade. Slice a pound of local pork loin thinly like skirt steak and marinate it with El Yucateco achiote paste, which comes in a box slightly bigger than a matchbox. Mix an inch-thick chunk of the paste (refrigerate the rest) with a 1/4 cup of lime juice, or a 1/4 cup of Goya bitter orange. You can find the paste and the bitter orange at El Progreso. I like to add dashes of freshly toasted ground cumin, as well as dashes of ground allspice and clove. Marinate the meat for at least 30 minutes but not longer than eight hours. Achiote is made with annatto seeds, small amounts of which give “American” cheese its yellow color. So, be sure to scrub your hands and nails well after you handle the paste or you’ll be looking Oompa Loompa-ish. Grill the pork whole, let it rest, and slice it into strips, or slice it into strips and stir-fry in a heavy skillet.

Crema is not the same as sour cream. It is thinner and more subtle. Unlike sour cream, you can add crema to soups and sauces without it curdling. El Progreso carries several varieties of crema, though you can make your own easily. Simply add a couple of teaspoons of plain yogurt or cultured sour cream to a cup of heavy cream. Cover the container loosely and let sit on your kitchen counter for 12 to 24 hours before refrigerating. I like to use Kilgus cream but if you are concerned, you can use ultra-pastuerized cream. 

To make cilantro crema, try to get local cilantro, as it has better flavor than cilantro from California. Claybank Farm and Tomahnous Farm both currently have it available. Unlike other herbs, both cilantro’s leaves and stems are usable and flavorful. Since local chiles aren’t yet available I have been using El Yucateco green habanero sauce, which is actually not that hot. Add only a couple drops or omit it altogether if you don’t like a little heat. To get a ripe lime, choose one with a thin, smooth skin and a yellow blush. The sauce will keep for at least a week in the fridge. Drizzle a spoonful on a sandwich or salad, or on top of a bowl of beans or chili.

Cilantro Crema

2 fists full of cilantro leaves and stems, about 1 ½ c loosely packed
1 c homemade (recipe above) or purchased crema
Juice from half a lime
Dash of salt
¼ to ½ t finely minced Serrano or jalapeno chile or
  Several drops of El Yucateco green habanero sauce

Place all in a large glass and mix until smooth with a stick blender.