Una Aventura Llamada Menudo

6th Annual Menudo Festival Santa Maria, California

Can't you almost taste it?

Can't you almost taste it?

Menudo is such a simple and homespun dish, yet just the mention of it evokes a wide variety of reactions. There are those who will remember the unique smell emanating throughout the kitchen, conjuring sweet childhood memories; others will tolerate it at a Mexican restaurant as a cure for a raucous Saturday night; there's yet another group that will find the thought of cooked-down beef feet and chunks of cow stomach with a liberal dash of corn kernels soaked in lye horrific at best. For the purpose of this article, we won't consider that "other" group (the one that made Ricky Martin famous). You're not likely to see menudo on the menu at many high-end Mexican restaurants, as it is generally regarded as a food of the people, a way to make what has formerly been regarded as inferior cuts of meat and offal palatable. Conversely, you won't be able to "make a run for the border" or sit down to a steaming, earthy bowl at your local El Torito either. Most places that serve menudo do so on weekends, typically on Sunday mornings, and if you've never had this gut warming soup you owe it to yourself to give it the old college try. Eventually you will come to enjoy the ritual of dropping in spoonsful of chopped onions, cilantro and oregano provided on the side with a squirt of lime and a light sprinkle of dried, crushed chiles and letting the smell and the taste take you to a special place.
The row of vendors participating in the menudo contest

The row of vendors participating in the menudo contest

Since 2006, one of those special places has been Santa Maria, California, home to the annual Menudo Festival. The event has been held at different locations around town; the 2011 event took place in the street between the Santa Maria Town Center Mall and its adjacent parking structure. Since its inception, the Santa Maria Menudo Festival has been a fundraising event organized by the National Latino Peace Officers Association of Northern Santa Barbara County to benefit the Robert Ramos Scholarship Fund. The process for choosing the best menudo is simple - your $5 admission gets you a ticket pre-printed with the names of the contestants (there were 10 participants in this year's event). As you wander from booth to booth your ticket gets a checkmark from the vendor and you gape in wide-eyed wonder as the rich, red elixir is ladled into a 4 ounce cup for your dining pleasure. Those of you who think that polishing off 4 ounces of menudo isn't very formidable needs to do the math and multiply that by ten for a 40-ounce challenge that even Adam Richman can appreciate - that is if you decide to empty your cup at each stop. Once you've hit each booth it's a simple matter of dropping your ticket into the cardboard box at the booth of your favorite (no voter registration or valid ID required); each ballot box is counted and the winner gets to proudly display the People's Choice trophy at their fine dining establishment for one year.
The panel of local celebrity judges for the menudo contest

The panel of local celebrity judges for the menudo contest

Naturally, the founding fathers of menudo weren't going to idly stand by and watch democracy in action without making their official voice heard, so the contest also features a panel of judges that chooses their own "best of show". The 2011 panel consisted of Santa Maria City Councilman Mike Cordero; KCOI anchor Victoria Sanchez; Telemundo anchor Laura Aguirre; Univision's Diego Santiago; and California's 47th Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado (apparently Ricky Martin had a previous engagement).  After the judges were announced, the festivities commenced with a soundtrack provided by local radio station KPAT and a variety of singers and bands performing rancheras, Latin pop and traditional music. Although the menudo vendors were neatly arranged in a row, there were other food options available with stalls hawking elote, huaraches, tacos and agua frescas alongside ice cream trucks and kettle corn wagons. I decided to do my sampling at random, starting with Mariscos Ensenadas. What drew me to their booth was that the sole person manning the booth was Juan, the only contestant decked out in chef's attire. He explained that the restaurant is known for their Michoacán (Ensenada)-style cuisine, and that their menudo used beef feet to create the stock for taste only (they were removed prior to serving). A big part of the experience is presentation, and since that part of the playing field was leveled with uniform Styrofoam cups, I took note of the extra effort put in by vendors like Mariscos Ensenada, who had the condiments nicely displayed in hand-painted clay bowls on a Mexican blanket. Their soup had the perfect amount of spicy and a thick, flavorful broth.
Chef Juan of Mariscos Ensenada is proud of his menudo

Chef Juan of Mariscos Ensenada is proud of his menudo

I initially assumed the task of deciding which menudo stood foot and stomach above the rest was going to be confusing, expecting similarity with each cup, but that couldn't have been farther than the truth. El Pollo-Non's menudo was more of a mellow brew with very little spice and big chunks of uncharacteristically tender tripe; they also used beef feet but retained the "meat" while discarding the bones. Taqueria Carmelita used white hominy and primarily book tripe; I was impressed with their choice of shredded (rather than chopped) onions as part of their condiments. I made the mistake of asking if they used beef feet, and got a response of, "You like beef feet?" followed by the presentation of an intact, steaming hot bovine appendage wrapped in foil. I wasn't sure whether or not I liked beef feet, but I wasn't about to insult his generous gift - I opted to slowly walk away with my foot in my mouth.
That is mint and garlic you see in la Chiquita's menudo

That is mint and garlic you see in la Chiquita's menudo

El Palenque also went the extra mile on the garnishes with a bowl of chopped fresh jalapeno. I had to give them extra credit props for hand-making thick, crispy tortillas on a grill at the back of the booth. Their menudo was oilier than most of the others, but that isn't a detriment to the taste. The peppermint candies on the table were a nice touch and I pocketed a couple knowing damned well they would be a requirement later on. My personal favorite was the zesty, ruby-red brew from the traditionally-clad staff at La Chiquita. The sturdy soup read like a stew with big sections of tripe and beef feet meat (say that three times fast). I fished a garlic clove out of the cup and the woman at the booth recoiled in horror, offering to remove it immediately, but I informed her that I was a garlic lover and was looking forward to how it colored the menudo. I didn't realize (but was informed) that although the soup is usually made with garlic, most menudo aficionados don't like pieces of it in the bowl thus prompting the removal of any stray cloves prior to serving.
At Mariscos Ensenada, good grades for presentation

At Mariscos Ensenada, good grades for presentation

Taqueria Guerrero served up a no-nonsense, dark, murky broth of medium spice, and Taqueria las Brasas offered a brew with a spice level that matched my tastes, although their tripe was a bit too chewy. I was surprised to see an entry from Vallarta Supermarket, but only from a standpoint of a grocery chain competing with restaurants; anyone who has been in the cafe at the front of your friendly neighborhood Vallarta knows that they serve cheap yet delicious Mexican food. Their cauldron of delights held a menudo with huge chunks of beef feet (off the bone) but no hominy; the tripe was firm in texture without being overly chewy. La Picosita's soup was the brightest red I'd ever seen and the morning sun hitting it gave it the appearance of a vat of bubbling lava. The menudo had high oil content but probably the best tripe texture of any of the contenders. I especially enjoyed savoring their soup while watching them throw together huaraches, a process that involves enough oil to make it a spectator sport for me.
The rich and flavorful cabeza taco from Taqueria La Coqueta

The rich and flavorful cabeza taco from Taqueria La Coqueta

By the final booth I had hit a menudo wall - I walked it off, sipping on ice-cold horchata before getting the courage up to grab a couple of cabeza tacos (not a euphemism) from Taqueria La Coqueta and await the judges’ decision. After lengthy deliberation, the top spot went to Taqueria Guerrero, with Taqueria La Coqueta placing and a show from Taqueria Carmelita. On the other hand, the people had decided that the big menudo kahuna was Taqueria La Coqueta, followed by Mariscos Ensenada with El Pollo-Non finishing third. I would have lost money betting on the event as my top choice didn't make either contest, but I was too satiated in a menudo-fueled haze to contest the results.
There can be only one... per year

There can be only one... per year

The event takes place every year on the Sunday closest to the Fiesta Patrias de Dieciséis de septiembre (the holiday of Mexican Independence Day on September 16), but there's no need to wait that long, since you can probably get an outstanding bowl of menudo from the local family-run Mexican restaurant on any given Sunday. For the uninitiated, all it takes is the first spoonful of this powerful bowl of liquid gold before you find yourself living la vida loca. Santa Maria Town Center Mall (outdoor site of the 2011 festival) 142 Town Center East Santa Maria, CA 93454 GPS coordinates:  34°57'6.54"N 120°26'0.80"W Mariscos Ensenada 1127 W. Main Street, Suite C Santa Maria, CA 93458-4216 GPS coordinates:  34°57'13.69"N 120°27'9.17"W El Pollo-Non 312 W. Main Street Santa Maria, CA 93458 GPS coordinates:  34°57'10.84"N 120°26'22.84"W Taqueria Carmelita 809 North Broadway Santa Maria, CA 93454 GPS coordinates: 34°57'38.60"N 120°26'11.14"W El Palenque 715 South Broadway Santa Maria, CA 93454 GPS coordinates: 34°56'42.99"N 120°26'9.92"W Super Carniceria La Chiquita 1617 North Broadway Santa Maria, CA 93454-1925 GPS coordinates: 34°58'6.28"N 120°26'11.24"W Taqueria Guerrero 123 West Main Street Santa Maria, CA 93458-5024 GPS coordinates: 34°57'11.77"N 120°26'13.21"W Las Brasas Mexican Food 315 West Main Street Santa Maria, CA 93458-5028 GPS coordinates: 34°57'11.82"N 120°26'23.45"W Vallarta Supermarket 1875 North Broadway Santa Maria, CA 93454 GPS coordinates: 34°58'29.28"N 120°26'10.25"W La Picosita 923 North Broadway Santa Maria, CA 93458 GPS coordinates: 34°57'43.43"N 120°26'9.51"W Information about the event at the web site of Latino Business and Community Council of Santa Maria, California

GALLERY: See images from Val's visit to the 6th Annual Santa Maria Menudo Festival in Santa Maria, California

Read an article from OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano about the power of menudo
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