October 6, 2010

The Taste Bud: What’s better than cheap tacos and Mexican Coke?

Mexican Coke has become something of a fad here and in many other parts of the United States — and no, I’m not talking about some sort of illegal drug trade.

You know Mexican Coke if you’ve been into any taquería around the Metro area — or possibly even if you’ve been to Sam’s Club or Costco. Mexican Coke still comes in returnable glass and is growing in popularity as more and more Mexican-style grocery stores and taquerías open up — heck, Mexican Coke even has its own Facebook page. (And if you’re really hard-core, check out www.wheretofindmexicancoke.com.)

In fact, www.DailyFinance.com recently reported that “experts” predict the market for these drinks will reach $195 billion in global sales by 2014, an increase of more than 11 percent since 2009. You can’t make up stuff like this.

What distinguishes Mexican soft drinks is that they are sweetened with natural cane sugar, as opposed to the American versions, which use the much cheaper high fructose corn syrup. People dig that difference, and not just because they feel the taste is better in the Mexi-Cokes.

High fructose corn syrup has fallen out of favor with anyone who doesn’t want to die soon, given that study after study has indicated that consumption of good ol’ HFCS is a risk factor for developing obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol levels, liver damage and mercury poisoning — and it may even accelerate the aging process. I heard about one study that suggested HFCS could cause consumers to grow a second head (that one is unconfirmed).

Basically, the corn-based sweetener is a processed chemical, while sugar cane is not. I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that sugar cane is healthy, but at least it doesn’t come from a factory.

I write all this because I recently visited Santa Fe Grill, the Mexican hole-in-the-wall at 3000 S. Third St. near Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and Churchill Downs, for the first time. The place is hardly a well-kept secret — I was there for lunch on a weekday with my friend Jeremy, and it was jam-packed.

While I was impressed by the traditional Puebla-style tacos at just a $1.35 apiece, my heart (and belly) was just as warmed by the big glass bottles of Pepsi that stared at me from a cooler in the corner of the small dining room. My great-grandmother used to buy those and always made sure I got at least one when I visited, even if my parents protested. And while the difference in taste between Mexican and American soda may be subtle, there’s just something retro and cool about those bottles.

Oh yeah, back to why I was writing this: Santa Fe Grill is delicious and cheap. Almost ridiculously so, actually. While I opted for Mexican-style tacos on my first visit, complete with a variety of fresh meat options to choose from — chorizo, marinated chicken, lightly fried fish and beef tongue — I couldn’t stop eyeballing what looked like a football-sized enchilada at a nearby table. Called an “enchilado,” it’s basically an enchilada-style burrito ($6.25) that could easily make two meals.

Wouldn’t mind trying one of the $5 tortas as well, perhaps with chorizo. Nothing quite like a Mexican-style sandwich piled high with avocado, jalapenos, Chihuahua cheese and other goodies, along with your choice of meat. Might I suggest barbacoa (barbecued pork)?

I also found it interesting that if you don’t fancy the traditional tacos with onions, cilantro and lime, you can get your tacos gringo-style (sorry, I mean “American”-style) with your basic cheese and lettuce.

Come to think of it, maybe those tacos should be served only with American-style soft drinks. High fructose corn syrup meets useless iceberg lettuce? But then again, if you’re going to do that, why would you be in a traditional taquería in the first place? Seriously, just go to Taco Bell.

After all, that would mean more Mexican Pepsi for me — and no extra head to share it with.