Cinco de Mayo feasting

By
From the May 3, 2012 edition

If they can count down from 10 for New Year’s Eve, I can count up to five for Cinco de Mayo, right (it’s Saturday)? Here goes:

1) Fake holidays are the best. See, minus the pressures of 2) the “mandatory family gathering” and/or trying desperately hard to have “a very special night,” you can just relax and have fun. In essence, the fake holiday brilliantly comes into play only by 3) providing your revelries with an organizing and entertaining theme and/or 4) giving you an almost-believable excuse (OK, barely believable) to overdo it and act stupid. This brings us to 5) Cinco de Mayo — a holiday so wonderfully fake that they hardly bother to celebrate it in Mexico.

No, Cinco de Mayo is basically a faux fiesta tailor-made for north-of-the-border gringos. You know the drill: packed-to-the-gills fake Mexican restaurants filled with Americans knocking back nondescript burritos and squishy margaritas until a bunch of “nacho cheese”-lubricated people begin speaking what they actually think is Spanish.

Well, this Cinco de Mayo weekend, you could instead immerse yourself as deeply as possible (at least in Ohio) into authentic Mexican culture. This can be accomplished by visiting a couple of off-the-beaten-path Mexican restaurants located in intensely Mexican markets catering to a predominantly Mexican clientele.

These special places might appear a bit humble and might require a little knowledge of Spanish, but not only do they cook the best homestyle Mexican food you’ll eat in a Columbus restaurant, but they offer uncommon extras you’ll not find anywhere else in town.

La Plaza Tapatia

Nearby where the casino will be operational soon is a giant Mexican supermarket (I urge you to thoroughly investigate it!) which contains a large, one-room restaurant that visually mimics an arcaded village square and features strolling musicians on weekends. Put simply, if you’re in the mood for a lot of homey, good Mexican food, La Plaza Tapatia’s daily buffet — served with warm, just-made tortillas — is the best bargain in Columbus. Notes: It’s cafeteria-style, but multiple trips are encouraged; don’t expect written descriptions of the food; and if your Espanol is rusty, pointing works.

Some recent favorites have been sopes (crispy fried discs of masa tricked out with beans and all the trimmings); massive, tender and meaty pork ribs in a zesty tomatillo sauce (carnitas); eggs poached in salsa verde; tostadas topped with stewy chicken breast meat, crema, queso fresco and more; fried tilapia and fried shrimp that were simple but surprisingly good; a rustic chicken stew in a piquant tomato sauce; rice (fluffy, with peas and corn) and beans (rich and comforting); plus a colorfully stocked salsa and garnish bar.

La Favorita

La Favorita sits inconspicuously in a little North Side strip mall, but it delivers bold and big flavors. This bare-bones restaurant — which is sectioned off from a mini market — occupies a smallish room equipped with red padded booths and TVs showing the mandatory Mexican programming — and there’s no alcohol served. So you’re here only to eat, but you will do that in highly authentic style. On weekends, three standout specials are offered: killer carnitas (succulent and crispy pork chunks), top-notch menudo (spicy tripe stew) and a remarkable lamb soup. The latter — Barbacoa con Consome di Chivo — is made with goat when available (not often) and is one of my favorite Mexican entrees in town. Served like posole (with hominy and uplifting side garnishes), it’s about a pound of pulled lamb meat submerged into an outrageously intense and rich lamb broth I crave on a regular basis. Outstanding!

Photos by Tessa Berg