published Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Side Orders: Mexican menus for Cinco de Mayo

As Cinco de Mayo approaches, I think back to a time when Mexican food was a rarity in Chattanooga. Remember when the first Taco Bell opened in town on Brainerd Road? I'll bet baby boomers do.

It was then that many of us were introduced to our first tacos. It would be a couple more years before chimichangas and other south-of-the-border favorites made their way into town. Now we don't have to travel far to get our Tex-Mex and Mexican cravings satisfied. There's a Mexican restaurant in every neighborhood.

Cinco de Mayo, which falls on Sunday this year, commemorates the Mexican army's 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War, which took place in the 1860s, according to history.com. Never heard of it? Don't feel bad ... many Mexicans haven't either.

In fact, we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States more than they do in Mexico, some sources say. It's a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture and, if you go to some of the larger restaurants in town, they'll have specials waiting for you, such as:

El Meson (2204 Hamilton Place Blvd. and 248 Northgate Park):Owner Raul Ruiz says Cinco de Mayo will be "one huge celebration" at both restaurants. If you order off the menu, expect to find several entrees specially priced. If you take part in the tent party, which has a $5 cover charge, you can treat yourself to a free buffet loaded with Mexican favorites. There also will be $6 margaritas and several beer specials, too. The restaurants are open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The tent parties kick off at 2 p.m.

Amigo (5874 Brainerd Road, 1906 Dayton Blvd., 3805 Ringgold Road, 5450 Highway 153): The celebration begins at 11 a.m. when the restaurants' most-popular dips -- spinach, cheese and bean -- will be offered at half price until closing at 10 p.m. But if you're at Amigo between 3 and 9 p.m., you might enjoy happy hour, too, with two-for-one margaritas and beer specials.

Abuelo's (2102 Hamilton Place Blvd.): General manager Ramesh Jolam says the Hamilton Place eatery will be offering a variety of specials, including specially priced steak tacos, margaritas and beer. Plus, there will be giveaways galore. Just spin the wheel and, if you're lucky, you might win free appetizers and entrees. Abuelo's hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Taco Mamacita (109 N. Market St.) There'll be a huge party going on with $5 margaritas, $3 tequila shots and $2 Jell-O shots, as well as half-priced sangria and other specials. The fun begins at 11 a.m. and lasts into the night.

On Sunday, Chattanooga Market also will be celebrating the fifth of May with a huge Cinco de Mayo blowout. First Tennessee Pavilion will be filled with the spirit of Mexico, complete with mariachis, salsa dancing, beer and food. It all starts at 11 a.m.

Keeping on a Mexican theme, I can't go to any Mexican eatery without ordering guacamole. It's my go-to yardstick. But lately, I've been making a good bit of it at home, stopping every week to stock up on avocados at Aldi, where I find really big ones that often cost just 69 cents each, the best price I've found in town. Those we don't eat in salads or on sandwiches end up mashed for guacamole and served with chips.

But how do you cut them? I mean, it's easy to split one up the middle with a sharp knife, but using that same sharp knife to get the pit out can be quite dangerous. I speak from experience, having once ended up with stitches. That's why I love my new avocado slicer from Trudeau, maker of many clever cooking devices. One side slices, making beautiful slices for a salad, and the other side has a pitter to remove the pit. No more visits to the emergency room for me, at least when I'm prying the pit out.

Making the following recipe for a twist on traditional guacamole is safe, as well as easy and delicious. The simplicity of this recipe is only one of its pluses. Taste is another.

It's a recipe found in a recently released cookbook, "200 Easy Mexican Recipes" by Kelley Cleary Coffeen. The book is filled with authentic Mexican recipes, but the best one I've found so far is the Charred Corn Guacamole, which takes guacamole to a new level. The corn gives it a nice crunch, while the lime juice and roasted peppers give it a kick. It gives a nod to our neighbors to the south, while making a nice addition to your Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Charred Corn Guacamole

1/2 cup roasted green chile peppers (see note)

1 cup corn kernels (frozen, fresh or canned)

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

4 avocados

Seasoned salt, to taste

In a medium bowl, combine chile peppers, corn, lime juice, oil and cumin. Transfer to a baking sheet, and broil until corn is slightly charred, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from oven, and let cool slightly.

In a large bowl, mash avocados. Add corn mixture, and stir gently to combine. Add seasoned salt, to taste. Serve immediately, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

Note: To roast peppers, preheat oven broiler. Place peppers on baking sheet, and place 2 to 3 inches away from heat under broiler. Broil, turning often with tongs, until skin surfaces are lightly charred and blistered. Immediately place peppers in a paper bag or airtight container and close tightly. Let peppers cool 12 to 15 minutes. Wearing gloves, peel off charred skin and remove stems and seeds. Wash hands immediately afterward.

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