For many Tucsonans it’s not Christmas without menudo for breakfast and tamales for dinner. Menudo is a traditional Mexican stew made up primarily of white corn and beef tripe (cow stomach). It is usually garnished with lemon or lime, salt, red pepper flakes, green onion and cilantro.
Because Arizona sits above the Mexican state of Sonora, you will most likely find white Sonoran-style menudo served here. You may also find red menudo that has come to us from the Mexican state of Chihuahua and the American states of New Mexico and Texas that sit above it.
Menudo is thought to have curative powers as a detoxifier and hangover cure (said to banish the demons of drink). It is often referred to as “the breakfast of champions” because those who enjoy it feel they have been fortified after eating it. In the early 1900′s south Texans called it “cafe de hueso” or “bone coffee” which some thought was a reference to it’s medicinal value.
There are many theories about the origins of menudo. Some say it’s a pre-Colombian dish. Others cry foul, pointing out cows did not come until later. There probably were versions of it in pre-Colombian times with other meats. If common people made it back then, there is a good chance it was a plane-Jane, bland version of today’s dish just as the common version of the tamale back then was bland and low-fat. Excessive spice was not often used in everyday common food. It was considered rude by many to use too much chili or other spice because it left less for others.
So where did the modern beef version come from?
It is thought menudo originated in Sonora. Sonoran folklore says during the Mexican civil wars, people slaughtered their cows, dried the beef and sent the jerky off with the soldiers. They had to make due with what was leftover.
This could be true, or partly.
However it originated, you can gaze into a steaming bowl of menudo and gain more understanding of Mexican culture and plight and understand how this dish came to be. The white corn or maiz has been a long-standing important staple of the Mexican diet – the object of songs, poems, prayers, life and death. The lemon/lime, chili, oregano, green, onion and cilantro are traditional flavors and were easy to grow or pick wild. They were important foodstuffs and curatives in their own right.
Then we have the tripe and other common ingredients most people fail to mention – calf or pig feet. I know it’s gross to think about, but when you are a poor peasant, you learn to be creative and not waste a single thing.
Well-off ranchers in Mexico and along the United States/Mexico border were a major source of income for poor Mexicans. The ranchers would keep the good parts of the cows and “allow” their poor farm hands to keep the head, tough beef skirts, feet/hooves and entrails. These farm hands turned what was considered junk into gastronomical delights that nourished and provided strength – tacos de cabeza (head meat tacos), barbacoa (usually head meat), menudo, tripas (intestines), carne asada and fajitas (made from skirt steaks).
Generations later, many of us offspring are still enjoying these creations. When you pass by certain restaurants and stands grilling up these dishes or encounter a family in the park making carne asada, you are witnessing the influence of a our local version of ranch-hand cooking.
Because of the labor required to make menudo, many people only make it themselves for special occasions – such as the holidays.
If you have not had a chance to try menudo, I do NOT suggest you get a recipe and try to make it. It would be horrible to spend hours making it, only to find you don’t care for it.
If you have friends who make menudo, perhaps you can ask them to let you try it when they make a batch. There are many restaurants around Tucson that serve menudo – usually on Sundays. Some places in Tucson make lousy menudo, so get recommendations.
I have read in the Weekly that local folklore expert Jim Griffith is picky about his menudo and prefers the Saturday menudo at Little Mexico Steakhouse on Valencia road. I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.
If you do not live on the south side (where you will find the best menudo in my opinion), there are other options. El Molinito restaurants serves a good menudo and has locations on Pantano/Wrightstown, 22nd/Craycroft, and off of Ina/Thornydale.
Another favorite of mine is El Sur restaurant off 22nd/Craycroft.
I will admit, I have an affinity for Juanitas canned white menudo (only the “white menudo” version) and this will be the closest I get to a recipe in this post. It tastes really close to homemade. Warm it up, add some chopped green onion, cilantro, salt, pepper, and red chili flakes along with a few squeezes of lemon juice. Slice a bolillo or french roll in half, butter and toast it. Pretty damn good!
Maybe I’ll talk my dad into sharing his recipe… Do you have one to share or a restaurant to recommend?