June 25, 2008 · Updated 1:33 PM
"South of the border or not, celebrate Cinco De Mayo.Downtown, in the heart of old Mazatlan, Mexico, there's a restaurant called Doney's (pronounced Doh-nay's). It's been a local favorite since sometime early in the 1900's, although during much of that time it was a far less appealing place than it is now. When I first saw Doney's, it was very much a ocals only eatery, rather dark inside, quite noisy and always, always crowded. The food was good and cheap, service so-so depending upon time of day and mood of the waiters, and both the music and the ambience were decidedly Mexican. Nothing touristy about the place.Today, Doney's is in a large, Spanish-style, white stuccoed building with an arched brick entryway and a huge central dome through which sunlight streams down to fill the big central dining room. It's still a favorite place for Mazatlanians to come for a family breakfast, business lunch, dinner-out, but now many tourists who head south each winter for some relief from the cold and rain have also discovered the delight of some real Mexican food at Doney's, and at least half of the clientele at any given time will be gringo, John and myself included whenever we're in Mazatlan. Almost all the waitresses now speak some English, so the agonizing days of trying to order in inadequate Spanish are mercifully past and, while it is no longer quite so inexpensive, the food has changed little over the years. It is very typical of the area, from appetizers to dessert, with little or nothing on the menu changed or added solely to please the tourist palate, and it is always outstanding.No, this is not a restaurant review column; I do have a point to make and it's this: A first-time tourist looking on Doney's menu for what we in north America call Mexican foodî would find little recognizable except enchiladas, and if that's what he orders, he won't recognize them as enchiladas like back home No huge, bulging burritos; no folded, fried tacos with mystery filling, piled with shredded lettuce and served with rice and beans; and no stiff, fluted tortilla shells filled with tortilla salad, whatever that may be. And most puzzling to those new to real Mexican cuisine, there will be very little hot, spicy food of any kind on Doney's menu, or elsewhere in non-tourist type restaurants.The notion that Mexican food is hot, fattening and unhealthy is, for the most part, incorrect, and certainly does an injustice to some of the finest food in the world. The misunderstanding about the spiciness of Mexican food actually had its beginnings in our own Southwestern states, where Tex-Mex and Southwestern-style cooking brought typical Mexican dishes over the border, then revved them up in an attempt to be different, going to extremes of heat to appeal to make it hotter gourmands. It seems that lots of folks now think it's not Mexican unless it makes you cry after the first bite or two, and when they actually go to Mexico, they're disappointed in the blandness of the food.Saturday is Cinco de Mayo, 5th of May, a fiesta day for Mexicans who'll be celebrating a day long ago when a small Mexican force defeated (temporarily, but nevertheless defeated) a three-times-larger invading French army. Doney's will undoubtedly be packed with Mexican families come to celebrate and feast, probably all afternoon and well into the evening. And in cities and restaurants throughout North America, there'll also be lots of fiesta and feasting, because we've now adopted this very Mexican holiday and made it one of our own. But with rare exceptions, the food just won't be the same. Vive, Mexico! and Vive, Doney's!RecipesIn Mexico, the word antojitos means little whimsies or notions, and this would include such things as tacos, burritos, flautas, sopes, chalupas, etc. They would be served as single snacks or one course in the main meal; you'd not find them two, three or four served as a combination plate,(except in places where the food is served to please the tourists). Here we call them appetizers, hors d'oeuvres, finger food, canapes, munchies...whatever the name, these will fit right in with your Mexican buffet.Fiesta Sopes(Sopes are shaped masa cakes with slightly raised edges to hold a filling; homemade will be best, but they can be bought, ready made, in the Mexican food section of some supermarkets).1 1/2 cups instant corn flour (masa harina; look in the Mexican food section)3/4 cup warm waterOil for frying the sopesSauces or fillings for the sopes (recipes follow)1. Heat a teflon coated griddle over medium heat. Mix the corn flour with warm water in a bowl; add more water if necessary to make a moist, smooth dough. Place dough in a plastic bag. When ready to make sopes, pinch off a walnut-sized piece of the dough, roll in the palms of your hands until smooth, then place dough between pieces of plastic wrap or in a sandwich baggie and press with the palm of your hand to flatten into a patty about 2 1/2 inches across and 1/4- to 3/8-inch thick, considerably fatter than a tortilla. Bake the patties on the griddle, turning only once. They should be golden and mottled but not stiff. Don't overbake. Remove from griddle; dip your fingers in cold water and gently pinch around the edge of each patty to shape into a shallow tart that will hold some filling.2. When ready to serve sopes, heat vegetable oil in a skillet and fry the patties for only about 30 seconds, just to heat them through. Drain on paper towels and fill immediately with filling of choice and about a teaspoon of sauce. Sprinkle with a bit of grated cheese or crumble quesa fresca (available in some supermarkets or use fine grated Parmesan) over top.Chicken Filling2 chicken breasts1/4 cup finely chopped green onion1/2 cup peeled, finely chopped tomato1 t. minced or mashed garlic (or to taste; I use 2-3)Salt and pepper, to taste1 T. vegetable oil1. Poach the chicken breasts in broth or water/wine mixture, until done. Remove from broth and chop or shred finely.2. Add all other ingredients except oil to the chicken, mixing well. Heat oil in a skillet and stir-fry the chicken mixture about eight minutes, until vegetables are softened and mixture is heated through. Salsa Fresca (Fresh Sauce)1 lb. ripe tomatoes1/4 cup chopped green onions, including green partsTips only of 2 Jalapeno chiles1 T. freshly squeezed lime juiceSalt, to taste1 t. finely minced fresh cilantro leaves1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water (depending upon desired consistency of sauce)1. Finely chop the tomatoes, onions and jalapeno tips; combine in a glass bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mix well, crushing the tomatoes a bit more as you mix. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Serve immediately.NOTE: This is a fresh sauce and MUST NOT be kept if there is any left over unless you cook it first. If you do have leftover sauce, heat and simmer for about five minutes, then allow it to cool and refrigerate until next day, but DO NOT keep longer than that.Meat Filling1 lb. lean ground beef2-3 cloves garlic, minced1 t. salt, or to taste1/8 t. ground cumin (more if you wish it to be spicier)1 large tomato, chopped6 tomatillos, husked (or just use 1 more tomato, if preferred; I love the tomatillo flavor)1-2 jalapeno chiles (to taste) seeded and finely chopped1 cup water (or less, depending upon desired consistency)1. Put all ingredients into a saucepan or large skillet and bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer for 1/2 hour. Remove from heat; put a spoonful of this filling into prepared sopes, top with a bit of finely chopped radish or green onion and sprinkle with crumbled or grated cheese (cotijo, if available, or Parmesan).And my personal favorite thing to whip out whenever guests arrive, quesadillas. In Mexico, various fillings are folded into a corn tortilla, edges pinched together, then fried and served with quacamole and/or salsa on the side. My version/s:QuesadillasFlour tortillas (if you're going to make large quesadillas and cut into wedges, use the big tortillas; otherwise, use whatever size fits your choice of filling that day)Fillings: A mixture of grated manchego and Cheddar, or any two melty-type cheeses you like, with a bit of chopped green onion and/or minced jalapeno; crabmeat and cheese; chopped cooked shrimp and cheese and/or salsa; refried beans and ricotta or other cheese; either of the fillings above (chicken or beef) with cheese, chopped onion; almost anything you can think of, in fact, can be put in a tortilla and turned into a quesadilla.1. Put desired filling on 1/2 of a tortilla, fold over and gently press edges together. Fry in a barely oiled skillet, turning once, until just golden and barely crisped; cut into wedges or in half (depending upon size) and serve immediately, with salsa and/or guacamole and/or sour cream for garnish. Or, cook quesadillas on a sprayed or lightly oiled griddle, turning once.Or: I occasionally make quesadillas pizza style (the first quesadilla I ever ate, in Mexico, was served to me this way) by leaving a very large tortilla open on a baking sheet, sprinkling it with a layer of mixed cheeses of choice, then a sprinkle of chopped green onion, a few dabs of salsa then putting it under the broiler until cheese is bubbly. Cut into wedges with a pizza cutter and serve with salsa, guacamole, chopped black olive, minced jalapeno on the side to be added as preferred. And these are but a few of literally hundreds of Mexican antojitos, delicious little whimsies. "