The arrival of another Cinco de Mayo prompted me to think about the alleged Mexican cuisine in Columbus. And the sad truth of the combo-platter matter is that most Mexican food in town is about as authentic as stadium nachos. Because even our better Mexican restaurants tend to pander to cheesy, beany and ground-beefy gringo expectations, thereby providing a reliable sameness in lieu of the genuine article.

The arrival of another Cinco de Mayo prompted me to think about the alleged Mexican cuisine in Columbus. And the sad truth of the combo-platter matter is that most Mexican food in town is about as authentic as stadium nachos. Because even our better Mexican restaurants tend to pander to cheesy, beany and ground-beefy gringo expectations, thereby providing a reliable sameness in lieu of the genuine article.

But the beauty of our ever-more cosmopolitan city is that the real deal can be found - you just have to know where to go and what to choose there. I recently snapped up some bona fide Mexican goodies from a neat little tortilla factory, a great little Mexican food boutique and a big Mexican-style supermarket.

Koki's

This West Side go-to operation sells daily-made warm flour and (much preferred) corn tortillas for a stunning $1.25 per three dozen (to reheat, gently blister them in a dry pan or tong-turn them right on a naked burner). Koki's also has cheap, ready-to-go masa dough for producing your own tortillas, tamales or even atole (a thick, oatmeal-like drink and definitely an acquired taste).

Panaderia Oaxaquena/Mi Pueblo Market

Mornings in Mexico - especially Mexico City - usually mean visiting a panaderia (bread store) and serving yourself from a wide variety of eye-popping, oversized sweet rolls called panes dulces. There's a few places around town that sell these uniquely festive breads, but none is better than Panaderia Oaxaquena (Oaxaca - pronounce it wa-hock-ah - is an artsy and beautiful city and state in Mexico). In general, these day-breaking treats are restrained in sweetness - they're more like toasty bread than a donut - and while some varieties even hint at French influences, all are a joy to eat.

Those pleasantly light breakfast breads are congruently paired with delicious Mexican hot chocolate. That comforting yet also light elixir - which is spiked with Mexican cinnamon - is made by dissolving little hockey-puck-like discs in a pan of heated-up milk. Try this artisanal-looking and -tasting made-in-Oaxaca brand.

Chicharrones are highly popular, dense, thick and crunchy Mexican pork rinds that shame the bagged American kind. Mi Pueblo (attached to Panaderia Oaxaquena) sells them by the pound out of a big basket on the counter, but in the store's back, where they house authentically seasoned, ready-to-eat meats, there's even better ones, with hunks of pork clinging to them.

Carnitas are pork chunks crisped up in their own rendered fat, and are positively addictive. Mi Pueblo sells good cooked ones for $6 per pound, and they come with a side of rocket-hot housemade green salsa. Construct your own tremendous tacos with Koki's tortillas and a little crumbling cheese, like this mild, salty "queso la generala" wrapped in a banana leaf.

In Mexico, moles are deep-flavored, wildly complex sauces. In local restaurants, they're usually the overly sweet and diluted product of mass-produced jars. This Oaxacan-made potent paste makes a base that tastes much more homemade, with rich chocolate notes, an underlying nuttiness and a resonant fruity heat.

La Michoacana Fresh Market

La Michoacana (named for a Mexican state) has a wealth of colorful and all-over-the-map distinctive Mexican groceries, but also an indoor Mexican street-food station and a bare-bones little restaurant with a few convincing winners.

The unusual (to American palates) but irresistibly rich and spicy roasted Mexican street corn is approximated with a dekerneled Styrofoam boxful of nuggets properly "condimented" with mayo, parmesan cheese, lime and chili powder. A must!

Another must is the authentic, street-vendor-style treatment of freshly sliced fruit - like giant, super-ripe, grown-in-Mexico papayas - doused with lime, salt and chili. Absolutely wonderful, and revelatory if you've never tried it.

These barbacoa de cabrito babies (juicy and outrageously savory, stewy goat pot roast) are the best $1.25 tacos in town!

There's over 30 good tequilas here (best deal: El Tesoro at $5/shot). Try one with a rare-around-Ohio sangrita chaser (note, this is not sangria but rather an aggressive yet typically balanced mix of tomato juice, chili and orange juice - ask for the made-here sangrita natural).

For a non-alcoholic quaff, try the excellent horchata - a refreshingly sweet, rice-milky drink fortified with cinnamon and bearing a mild and pleasurable, heat-killing chalkiness.

One bite of these texturally true tamales ($1.25; shredded pork with green salsa or shredded chicken with red salsa) will take you right to the heart of Mexico.

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