16 Dec,2017 By jagabond
There are few certainties in our world – the sun always rises in the east, death is the inevitable conclusion of life, and Europe has lousy Mexican food.
As a former resident of San Diego I can attest to the last one. Southern California in general has incredible Mexican food, but with San Diego’s proximity to the border there is literally a taco shop on every block. Moving to Europe was a gastronomical shock to me, as Mexican restaurants over here are as rare as elderly Frenchmen who speak English.
Why isn’t Mexican food a European thing? I think it comes down to lack of quality ingredients and the phenomenon of ‘European spicy’. Spices like cilantro and cumin, for example, aren’t as prevalent on this continent. Because the demand isn’t high enough to warrant an exhaustive search most Euro-Mexican restaurants just do without. Further, Europeans don’t like anything too spicy. A spice level Americans consider medium would be five-alarm over here. For these reasons and others, Mexican food in Europe tends to be bland and boring.
I was giving up and accepting my cruel fate. For the remainder of my time in Italy, I would be mindlessly gorging on caprese, gnocchi and prosciutto while hopelessly dreaming of enchiladas, tamales and habanero salsa. But…fate’s a tricky thing. In the nondescript, industrial city of Avellino, Italy, I found Europe’s hidden gem for Mexican food.
Sabor de Mexico is in the main downtown area of Avellino. I came here before on a Saturday night only to find it oddly closed, likely due to an Italian holiday I didn’t know about. This time it was open. I entered with naivety, totally ignorant to the stunning meal that was awaiting me.
The initial sign this could be something special was the look of the restaurant. This had the aesthetics of an eatery you’d see in San Diego or San Antonio. Appearing authentic leaves a good first impression. There were sombreros on the wall, paintings of coastal Mexico, and a quote from Emiliano Zapata, who played a role in the 20th century Mexican revolution. His translated quote reads “If there is no justice for the people, let there be no peace for the government.” Sigh…revolutionaries are so dramatic.
There was also a nice depiction of the Virgin Mary. Due to lawsuits and discrimination policies, you don’t see such outwardly religious expression inside restaurants in the U.S. I thought this was fitting and unique, as both Italian and Mexican cultures hold strong their Catholic beliefs.
After my sightseeing tour of the restaurant, it was time to eat! The drink menu was extensive. They had a nice selection of Mexican beers, including Corona, Negra Modelo and Desperados, and also had a few American style IPAs. I settled on the margarita, because most other restaurants in Europe have failed this test. Why do they fail? Most European margaritas I’ve had either use a pre-made mix or end up too watered down. This one was perfect, made from scratch at the bar, and served in the traditional glass with the ideal amount of rim salt. The kick from the first sip proved they were generous with the tequila.
If I could have one food on a deserted island, I might go with endless chips and salsa. Because of Europeans’ dislike for spiciness, finding quality, flavorful salsa over here is near impossible. That’s why I grabbed a chip without thinking, scooped up the jalapeno salsa, and shoved it down the hatch. After I melted three ice cubes on my tongue, I came to my senses. The salsa was shockingly spicy, a new experience for me in Europe. My excitement led me to finish the rest within five minutes, which meant a refill of ice cubes.
The main course was in two parts. First up was the tortilla soup. Typically made with chicken in the U.S., they only had the vegetarian option here. My first observation was the perfect blend of colors. How food looks can psychologically impact how it tastes, and too few restaurants consider this. I saw yellow, orange, green, red and white, and spoonfuls of fresh, local vegetables. Sodium lovers would savor this. Anytime I don’t need to add additional salt, it scores a lot of points.
Last but not least was the muchomacho burrito…what a name! I thought the tortilla soup had great color, only to be outdone minutes later. Look at this amazing presentation, with the carrot topping and the surrounding moat of beans.
Typically European Mexican restaurants add weird ingredients, instead of keeping it simple. This recipe stuck with a more traditional mix of beef, tomatoes, onions and cheddar. It tasted freshly made, not prepped earlier or microwaved. I wished it was a tad spicier, but requesting extra salsa on the side will fix that in the future.
Bottom line: Recommending a Mexican restaurant in Europe seems almost unbelievable to me, but here we are. One final note, the restaurant appeals to a wider audience with an extended menu including Spanish and South American cuisine. Thus you can find non-Mexican things here like paella, empanadas and sangria.
How to get there: Avellino is approximately a 90-minute drive east of Naples. If you plan on driving and enjoying too many Margaritas, I recommend staying the night at B&B Principit, which is conveniently located and has free onsite parking.