Costumbres diferentes

This is part 2 of a continuing series about Chihuahua, Mexico (part 1, here). Today’s post will be about the differences I’ve observed, real or imagined, between Mexico and the US.

Abandoned buildings

One thing that puzzled me when I first visited Mexico back in 2010 was all of the abandoned buildings along the highway between Juarez and Chihuahua. Many were in the initial stages of construction, just left partially completed. Others were obviously old homesteads that had been abandoned long ago and left to decay. What happened? Did the owners run out of money? Did the well run dry? Thirteen years later, in 2023, they are still there.

A partial brick home in front of an entire abandoned settlement (concrete wall and buildings in background)
Another partially completed building
Roofless hacienda
Old adobe ruins

Food

One of the most noticeable differences is that there are far more places to eat than in the US. Restaurants, food carts, and street vendors are seemingly everywhere.

For example, there is a small town called Villa Ahumada that has about six, large, open-air, community restaurants that cater to commuters traveling between Juarez and Chihuahua. It’s a long five hour drive between the two cities, so Villa Ahumada is in a perfect spot for people to stop and take a break. Within each building are individual stalls that all basically sell the same thing – quesadillas, chile relleno burritos, red burritos, and green burritos, all available within minutes after arriving. The chile relleno ones are the best.

6:30 am on a Saturday morning
These places are always busy

Commuter buses (not shown) also stop at these venues. The drivers get a kickback for stopping at the same place each time.

Here you can sort of see the individual stalls inside. There are also picnic tables.

Oh, and authentic Mexican burritos are small, like their name indicates (burrito = a  small burro). The larger ones sold in the US have been Americanized for our tastes and larger appetites. If you are eating a large burrito, it’s not an authentic burrito.

I never did manage to take a photo of the food. We were always so hungry and in a hurry that everything disappeared fairly quickly, but here are several photos curated from the internet that show authentic Villa Ahumada burritos.

Photo by Burritos Gutierrez
Photo by Paola Norman
Photo by Burritos Gutierrez

Villa Ahumada is also famous for making a particular kind of cheese, asadero, which melts at a low temperature, so it is perfect for making quesadillas. There are several dairy stores (cremerias) in town that sell asadero as well as another popular cheese made locally by the Mennonites, Chihuahua cheese. The Mennonites migrated to Chihuahua from Canada back in the 1920s when attendance at public schools became mandatory. There, they established a substantial agricultural community named Cuauhtémoc. We’ll see more about the Mennonites in a later post.

Incidentally, you won’t find orange-colored cheese used in authentic Mexican dishes from Chihuahua. Both asadero and Chihuahua eheese are made without artificial colors, so they are a rich, creamy white. Chihuahuans take great pride in their locally made cheeses and consider any of the orange cheeses to be cheap,  inauthentic, substitutes that should only be used for TexMex dishes. So, when you see orange cheese on your Mexican dish, it’s also probably not authentic.

Dairy store selling asadero cheese next to an ice cream store (neveria)
Asadero cheese and fresh cream (crema)
Dairy store next to a candy store (dulceria)

Many restaurants in Mexico place a heavy emphasis on meats and dairy. It is not an easy place to find vegetarian or vegan food, although that is slowly changing. I snapped a few photos that are typical of the dining options available around the city of Chihuahua, avoiding more commercial restaurants that look just like those we have here in the US. Special mention goes out to Pollo Feliz (pronounced Poyo Fellees) as one of my favorites for grilled chicken.

Pollo Feliz, not open yet at 5 am
Taco stand
Real tamales take a long time to make
Cart selling turkey tail and various kinds of pork

When I first went to Mexico back in 2010, I was a little worried about drinking the water and eating the food because of the stereotype about Mexico and food poisoning. I’m happy to say we’ve never had issues with any of the food we’ve purchased.

Burrito truck
Elotes (corn on the cob street food - see below)
Food from a trunk (sketchy...)
A parking spot becomes a pop-up restaurant

Unlike the US, there are often people weaving in and out of traffic at the street lights selling their wares. It’s very rare that you see anyone begging for money without offering something in return. This seems very different than the situation here in the US where people just stand or sit there holding their cardboard signs waiting for handouts. In addition to food, street vendors also sell flowers, newspapers, and jewelry, or will even put on a show while you wait for the light to turn. Each person seems to have their own special product to sell. The most useful service I’ve seen offered is by the men who have a plastic bottle with soapy water, a hole in the bottle cap, and a squeegee. For a small fee, they will quickly wash your car windows while you sit at the light.

Fruit cart
Fresh baked bread
Watermelon at a very busy intersection
Watermelon in a quiet residential neighborhood
Paletas! (popsicles)
Street jugglers

Now that you’ve seen a sampling of all the places that you can eat in Chihuahua, let’s take a look at some of the food. Molcajete (pronounced molca hetay) with grilled beef, onions, nopales (prickly pear cactus pads), and chihuahua cheese. Let me just say that those were two very large slabs of grilled Chihuahuan cheese. Molcajete is named after the serving dish, which is a mortar made out of basalt rock.

Molcajete

Seafood is very popular in summer, so we went to the Hacienda del Faisan (pheasant) one day for dinner. Our niece created this line up of salsas impress you how many different ones were available at this restaurant. I was impressed that none of them were the brand Cholula. I ordered a Cantarito cocktail (mezcal and grapefruit soda) with my meal, not realizing it would arrive in such a large vessel. Mezcal is a distilled alcohol made from several different types of agave after roasting it in pit ovens, which gives it a very distinctive smoky flavor.

Chips and salsa
Mescal cantarito

Looking across the table, L’s brother ordered a shrimp cocktail (left), which was served in a tomato-based sauce. L ordered Aguaschile (right), which is traditionally raw shrimp served in water seasoned with chile (no tomato). Apparently, it has its origins from Japanese immigrants and is based off of sashimi. Unfortunately, L didn’t realize that when he ordered it. The raw shrimp was a little off-putting, so L passed two of them to me. Luckily, it wasn’t a true aguaschile, so there were quite a few cooked shrimp as well.

Coctel de camarones
Aguaschiles

My dish was a hybrid between ceviche (lime cured seafood) and aguaschile served in a molcajete. Because it was a hybrid dish, mine came with several different types of seafood (fish, scallops, and shrimp) that had been cured in lime juice containing both tomato and chile. As a hybrid, it also had three grayish, filleted raw shrimp on the back of the molcajete. I tried curing them in the lime juice, but they were still not quite “cooked” by the time I got to them later. I powered them down anyway and ate two of L’s to boot. The rest of the dish was delicious, however.

Aguaschiles/ceviche molcajete

Switching now to some different types of street food that are available, birria is a slow cooked beef (or sometimes goat or lamb) dish. Incredibly rich, flavorful, at times almost too strong. Think of the beefiest beef flavor you’ve ever had and then double it. This photo shows a quesabirria, essentially a quesadilla with beef birria and asadero cheese.

Quesabirria - a quesadilla with very beef-flavored beef

One night, years ago, L’s family took me out one evening for tripe tacos (tacos tripas) and I flat out refused to eat them. L’s father was nice enough to take me across the street for a torta (sandwich). Upon returning and finishing my sandwich, they finally cajoled/teased/encouraged me enough to take a bite. Reluctantly I nibbled a piece and discovered it tasted just fine, good actually. Not disgusting at all and with a texture a bit like calamari. So, now it’s tradition to have tacos tripas every time we visit. On the other hand, I cannot stand menudo (a soup made with tripe), which to my palate has a strong odor, taste, and unpleasant texture.

Authentic Mexican tacos are never served in a hard taco shell, only in small, soft tortillas. Crispy shells are considered a bit of an abomination, created by gringos (anyone unfamiliar with Mexican culture, particularly white people) and are only useful for making a mess. The same holds true for giant burritos and orange cheese. Mexicans can be quite judgy about what is authentic Mexican cuisine versus the TexMex food that passes for authentic here in the US. I’ve learned only a few of the tricks that indicate whether a dish is authentic or not. But, full disclosure, I grew up on TexMex with crispy taco shells, orange cheese, and giant burritos, and still enjoy them from time to time. But, I just wanted to point out that the majority of the Mexican restaurants in the US aren’t serving authentic Mexican food, but rather something that has been adapted for our tastes and expectations.

Tacos tripas

Another stop in the mountains yielded these delicious gorditas and quesadillas made with thick tortillas made from freshly ground yellow, red, or blue corn. These were amazing. The gorditas had potatoes and meat in them while the quesadillas were made with fine asadero cheese.

Street gorditas
Red corn and blue corn

Perhaps one of the most popular street foods in summer is fresh corn on the cob, or as it is known here, elotes (eh-loat-ehs). Usually served from a food cart, July was my first time visiting an entire restaurant devoted to elotes. And, it was busy. There was a line stretching towards the entrance and several people even brought their dates (couple on the left).

Restaurant serving elotes

It was very stuffy and hot inside and out, one of those days in the 100s. Although you can’t see it, this is an open air establishment with large roll up doors and steam coming from the corn cooking behind the counter. Not exactly a place I think of going on a hot summer day, but no one here seemed to mind.

Elotes are served in several ways. Traditionally, they are served on the cob coated with butter and chili powder, and then topped with heavy cream and Chihuahuan cheese (left). Elotes are also served cut off the cob in cups with most of the same ingredients. Our niece, for example, ordered the special Barbie version of elotes in a cup with cheese that was dyed bright pink (middle). I chose the dorinacho version, with the elotes served on top of a small bag of doritos (right).

Traditional elotes
Barbie elotes
Elotes dorinachos

Another popular street food is papas con pepino, which are potato chips (papas) topped with fresh cucumber (pepino), salsa Valentina, and maggi (a salty sauce from Switzerland with a flavor similar to soy sauce or worcestershire sauce). We added jicama to ours to add even more crunch. These are impossible to eat without making a mess, which is humorously ironic considering the implied judgement about crispy taco shells earlier.

Papas con pepino

For dessert, there is Supercoldy, the best local chain for ice cream with several unusual flavors like rompope (think Mexican eggnog), maracuya (passionfruit), guava, peach, melon, and piñon. I always get a double scoop on a waffle cone. If you’re going to eat ice cream, it might as well be worth it. No kiddie scoops for me.

Sorry, I don't have a better photo!
Guava and piñon

Mexico also has some of the best popsicles, my favorites being avocado, mango, guava, guanabana (a tropical fruit), coconut, and piñon (pine nut). For some reason, the piñon popsicles are always pink. If you are lucky, they will have real pine nuts inside of them.

This next one made me a little sad, but I thought it was worth showing anyway. Rattlesnake infused tequila. Not something I would choose on my own, but it is occasionally available in bars.

Tequila shot

Grocery stores offer interesting items that are harder to find in the US, like these dried hibiscus flowers and tamarind fruit. The hibiscus flowers are used to make a tart drink called jamaica, which you will want to pronounce like the country, but don’t. It’s pronounced ha-my-cuh. Tamarind is also used in drinks and candy.

Large bins of hibiscus and tamarind
Jamaica (pronounced Ha-my-cah) - dried hibiscus flowers

A friend who lives in Chihuahua once remarked that they don’t see the point of wasting time cooking at home with all of the cheap, delicious food that is available in the city. Despite that, I think I know more people in Mexico who cook their own meals than in the US. Here’s a sampling of some of the homemade dishes that we’ve had. Left – red enchiladas made in a discada, which is a plow disk blade fit with a propane burner. Upper right – a salad made with prickly pear pads (nopales), onion, tomato, and cilantro – flavor is like a refreshing, tart salsa. Lower right, moyetes, or the Mexican version of British beans on toast, but much, much, MUCH better. The beans aren’t sweet at all and they have melted cheese on top. Always served toasty hot with a fresh salsa.

Enchiladas rojas
Ensalada de nopales
Moyetes

Huitlacoche (Wheat-la-coach-ay), or as we call it in the US, corn smut! If you haven’t heard of it, go ahead and look it up on the internet – it should be safe and not pull up anything risque. Huitlacoche is sweet corn that has been infected by the fungus Ustilago maydis. The flavor is a nice combination of sweet corn with undertones of earthy-mushroomy goodness. Excellent in an omelet. Don’t get the canned stuff though – grossbuckets.

On the right, squash flowers sauteed with onions and then later served in a quesadilla. I couldn’t really identify a unique flavor coming from the flowers though.

Huitlacoche
Flor de calabazas

I was so unimpressed by these party snacks on the left when I first saw them. Who would want cucumber, celery, and carrot sticks wrapped up in a damp napkin? But, then I learned that those napkins were actually thinly shaved jicama root and that seemed pretty cool. Served with ranch or blue cheese dressing.

On the right, chamoy. This is a type of sauce made from pickled fruit and chile. Delicious on mangos, peaches, watermelon, pineapple, or occasionally raw veggies. Also excellent in a mangoñada, a blended drink with mango, lemonade, and layers of chamoy.

Car shops

Moving on…Almost as prevalent as restaurants are the numerous car shops, often announced with a giant tire proclaiming “Desponche” (flat tires fixed).

Electronics, electronics repair, and other sources of ingenuity

There are also a surprisingly large number of stores dedicated to electronics and electronics repair. Unlike the US, labor is much cheaper in Mexico. So, there is more impetus to repair broken electronics rather than throwing them out or recycling them. For example, the rotating handle on our $25,000 20-year-old microscope at work got stripped and no longer worked properly. The microscope company representative said that it could no longer be repaired because the parts were no longer available. This, of course, would mean throwing away or recycling the old one and buying a new microscope. So, what did we actually do? We took the part to Mexico and had it repaired there for a nominal cost.

Electronics store
Casaclub electronics repair - photo from their website
Repaired microscope part

Put this same ingenuity and can-fix attitude to work elsewhere, and there isn’t much that can’t be repaired. For example, using a water bottle to connect one part of a drain pipe to the next.

Pipe connections

Farmacias

Another type of business that is more common in Mexico than in the US are pharmacies (farmacias). One reason for this is that some of them have doctors on staff that are available on a drop in basis. No need to wait for an appointment with your family physician.

Rarámuri

Something more widespread and visible is the presence of indigenous people in Mexico. The Rarámuri (also called Tarahumara) are indigenous to the state of Chihuahua and are famous for running long distance in sandals. The women traditionally wear these very bright, beautiful dresses.

Covid 19 precautions

When we visited in 2021, I was surprised to see this widespread, but misguided practice towards reducing the spread of covid 19. Almost every business had a mat set at the entrance filled with a dilute solution of bleach. Everyone was forced to march through the bleach and then wash their hands with hand sanitizer before entering. Sometimes, the bleach was still very strong. In other cases, like in the bottom photo, the bleach had mercifully dried up and hadn’t been replaced. As a scientist, I found the situation frustrating because covid isn’t transmitted by foot, not to mention the occasional spots of bleach that would accidentally get on our clothes. It seemed so pointless.

Dried up bleach on a mat, we still had to step on it

Sewing

Another surprise, this one pleasant, was how many households had a sewing machine that was actually being used to make clothing.

Karaoke

Ugh, apparently it’s not a party unless there’s karaoke. And, if that’s not intimidating enough, imagine what it would be like to have to sing in another language that you aren’t very proficient in. I’d much rather lip sync. I do have to admit I had a little bit of fun doing it though.

Other miscellaneous differences

Although not technically a difference, it was mildly exciting to see a dust devil blowing sand across the highway. I had forgotten how much the wind blows in the desert. We definitely see this on a much smaller scale in Oregon when tractors disk up bare fields on a dry summer day. Right – street dogs are always running around the neighborhood. Hard to tell if they belong to someone or not. Extremely well behaved, never jumping on people. They just sort of hang around hoping for a bit of food.

Sextels – This was truly a surprise. There is evidently a certain type of hotel for clandestine hookups on the outskirts of town that can only be rented for a maximum of 4 hours. Each room comes with a covered garage so that you can discretely hide your car.

Fake flower shop – this was pretty, an entire shop of fake flowers. Drought proof ones too. No need to water. Ever. Grandma would approve (my grandma always had a few faded, broken fake flowers in the garden for “winter color”).

Ok, that’s a wrap on some of the differences I’ve observed between Mexico and the US. Next in the series will be a post on Mexican nurseries and the plants that they sell!

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. danger garden

    WOW. This post must have taken quite awhile to put together, not to mention the foresight to have taken the photos in the first place. Thank you so much for doing it, a fascinating read. I had so many comments as I read, but now I can’t remember any of them (other than to share how much I hate huge burritos, orange cheese and hard taco shells). So much to learn and appreciate.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      It was something I thought of when we were down there for vacation in July that I thought would be different and that I would enjoy doing. It was a great way to revisit memories and to learn more about Mexican culture. I’m learning a lot just writing these!

  2. Kris P

    Even though I just finished lunch a couple of hours ago, I found myself feeling hungry as I read your post! As it’s been years since I ate any kind of beef, I doubt I’d like the “beefy-beef” but the elotes and varied flavors of ice cream appealed to me, as did the veggies wrapped in sliced jicama. I appreciated the emphasis on repairing and reusing items too – the US has become a throw-away culture. My undergraduate degree was in cultural anthropology and it struck me that my fellow students and I could’ve learned more from a close comparison of Mexican and US practices and “artifacts” than in revisiting the work of Margaret Mead and others of her era.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yes, the ability to reuse and repair stuff in Mexico really stands out. It’s such a different country in so many ways. Labor is so expensive here in the US, as are the parts, which often makes the repairs cost more than buying a new item. One thing that really struck me is that many of the electronic parts are much easier to find and cheaper in Mexico than the US. In part, that might be because they manufacturer so many of our products down there. I can’t help but think of all the troubles radioshack and various repair stores have had staying in business. I remember one of my mom’s friends had a television, radio, and vacuum repair store – we just don’t see those any more. The difference in food prices was also astounding. You can still go out and eat for a reasonable price. The dinner at the seafood restaurant cost $130 for a family of 10 – that’s $13 per person, which seems veryy reasonable compared to what a lot of restaurant meals are costing here in the US. There is something very obviously broken with our profit-driven economy.

  3. hb

    Very interesting–enjoyed your thoughts and all the photos. People in the US once upon a time used to fix things too, instead of throwing them out. Once upon a time…

    Hah I make burritos that are very small like in your photo. Fun to know that is more authentic!

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yes, I agree wholeheartedly on repairs. I just spent an hour a few weeks ago at the Apple store seeing if they could repair my ipad that suddenly stopped working. They ran a test to confirm it was dead and then explained that they don’t design new ipads so that they can be repaired anymore. They just offered to sell me a new one and take the old one for “recycling”, whatever that means.

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