Decade of the Burrito

Authenticity courtesy of a Texan importers.

The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America and
to salute the occasion, my Czech uncle Mila turned to me and said with a grin,
“Thanks for the potatoes.” I replied, “Thanks for the beer.”



The subject of corn and chili peppers came up as I tried to explain some of the
other dietary staples that originated in the “New” World. I did my best to describe
my favorite Mexican foods – burritos, tamales, guacamole, etc., but either he
wasn’t listening or he didn’t care. To Uncle Mila, corn is for pigs and chili
peppers are used to make paprika which makes goulash and that’s all that really
matters.


It was at about this time, deep in the expat barrios of Prague, that the first
Mexican food arrived on the scene. This was also around the time salsa began to
outsell ketchup in the states. Most say that Jo’s Bar delivered the first burrito
(“little donkey” in Spanish), but Radost, The Globe, Red Hot and Blues, Jama and
Buffalo Bill’s weren’t far behind. These ambitious eateries did their very best
to make do with a bare minimum of ingredients. Vacuum-packed tortillas and meager,
often canned ingredients handicapped the food we Americanos loved so much, especially
those of us who’d grown up in the southwestern U.S.


As new Czech-Mex restaurants opened their doors in the coming years, the tequila
flowed, the sombreros were hung on the wall and unfortunately, inferior food became
just part of the mood.


In 1997, Texan Clint Koch and his partners set up Nuevo Progreso, a manufacturer
and supplier of Mexican food that aimed to bring “true” Mexican taste to these
shores.


“We provide the restaurants with the most authentic ingredients,” Koch told me.
“It’s their decision whether they want to bastardize the meal with other, wrong
ingredients.”


He points to corn as an example: “We use 100% white masa harina [flour] to make
our tortillas. Niblet, or canned corn, is easily available but does not belong
in Mexican food.”


Misconceptions often concern chili sauces and powders. “Compare a Hungarian paprika
or Asian hot sauce with the authentic Mexican chili and it’s clear that the Mexican
chili suits the Mexican ingredients so much better.”


As the Mexican culinary diaspora spreads, Prague remains ahead of the curve among
European cities. “Tex-Mex” foodstuffs – which simply aren’t the real thing – may
still fill the shelves at Tesco, but judging from the success of Nuevo Progreso,
there is reason to be optimistic.

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