Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Frito Pie Country

Leaving the mountains from a recent camping trip we drive north into the town of Monte Vista. It’s endearing to me the way Colorado (and the entire US) bastardizes our foreign-named cities. Back in my native Chicago, we honored the French by naming one of our suburbs Des Plaines, which we then pronounce, well exactly like it looks-- In English, that is--- "Dess Planes". Here in Colorado we have mostly Spanish names to befoul. My favorite is Denver's own "Ga-la-pay-go" street. Ask a local where "Ga-LAH-pa-go" street is and they'll shrug. Even better is that a lot of the Chicanos in Colorado will use a Spanish accent to say Denver like "Den-bear" yet when they head South they pass through "Del Nort" instead of "Del Nor-teh". My wife is from Mexico and all this makes her shake her head disapprovingly, and I love to take her East on I-70 towards "Lie-mun" which she insists on calling "Lee-MOAN".

Monte Vista, our lunch destination, is a fine example of this phenomenon. The original Spanish settlers of the region (and my wife) would think to call it "Mon-teh VEES-tah". It is, however, known as “Monty” by the locals here. It's American now. And it is so very American to take what was once foreign and change it to be ours. (U-S-A!) Take burritos for example. A lot of Mexicans, believe or not, have never had a burrito. Seriously. It was likely invented in Northern Mexico but was then stolen and made famous here in the good ol’ US of A. Now you can’t think of a burrito without thinking of a particular large, sterile chain of restaurants. (I know you already did and yes they do have good burritos).

No burritos on this trip. The Frito pie was my destiny that day. Frito pie is a dish likely inspired by the Mexican dish, chilaquiles. Chilaquiles vary quite a bit but essentially are made of fried corn tortilla pieces or thick tortilla chips with salsa poured over the top, sprinkled with cotija cheese, diced onions and served with a dollop of sour cream. The Frito pie is, well, made with Fritos, and topped with red chile (chile con carne), lettuce, onions and cheddar cheese. I imagine what happened was that someone along the lines didn't have tortillas handy so opened up a bag of Fritos. Salsas had evolved already into the American-style "Chili" so it only made sense to pair the two, chilaquile-style. Boo-ya! A new piece of Americana and a cultural legacy of a dish was born.

Eating a Frito pie in a town called Monty is endless metaphor for the mixing of Mexican and American cultures—or maybe the better metaphor is the Americans changing something that was Mexican, calling it better and claiming it as their own. Yes, that is much more our style. (U-S-A!) Whatever happened, the important thing is that it caught on and Frito pies can be found all over our Southwest and I love them. I really love them. And I always have to have them as soon as I travel anywhere south of Salida (Suh-lie-duh).

So back to our trip which had us close to the New Mexico border, that is, deep into Frito-pie country. Usually the best places to find them are the roadside hamburger stands that all the southern Colorado and New Mexican towns have. Monty was no exception. JBs was actually a step up in luxury from a typical hamburger stand and had modern comforts—like inside seating and bathrooms. And the inside was a sight to behold. It was two rooms and a long hallway and every single square inch was covered in amateur acrylic paintings. It was an assault of color (and possibly on taste) and impressive if for no other reason than the compulsiveness either of the painter, who's bio could be found at the counter, the restaurant owner or both. The paintings were all framed in cheap wood frames. There were images from all over the world but mostly of mountain scenes and the one constant was that proportion and perspective seemed left to chance. In one an elk was as tall as a pine tree. In another the walls of the

church were reminiscent of an MC Escher sketch. A lot had a white home-printed label with black block text on the frame describing the location. Some had a price. In a couple places one was missing from the wall and the bare wood paneling of the restaurant showed in its place giving the impression that someone bought one of the paintings. The overall confused collage of paintings was in itself a wonderful work of art and I instantly developed a certain affection for the place.

Where the paintings stopped, the booths began and they were classic red vinyl. There was only an old cowboy eating in the corner alone when we entered and the contrast of the bright, sunny day made it seem a little darker than it actually was, reminding me of a locals-only bar that you're not sure you want to enter. But turning to order we were greeted by a harmless teenage boy and his older sister. Anyway, the important part is that on the wall menu under the category of "Other Goodies" was my Frito pie. Perfect. I ordered that and my travelling companion the green chile cheeseburger, another wonderful Southwestern favorite that I'm sure will be the subject of another entry soon. We chose a booth under my favorite painting: a bear in a campsite eating a fish (maybe) and you couldn't quite tell if he was supposed to be growling or smiling and it was kind of both so he just looked silly drunk and rabid for his food. So we plopped down in the booth and it sank a good foot more than I anticipated so the table was extra high like when you were a kid and needed a booster seat but didn’t want it. And under the painting of the shit-faced bear gleefully munching away on his fishy-burrito-looking meal we dove into our goods. It wasn't the best Frito pie I have had. It was a little salty. But a salty, sort-of-average Frito pie is still a Frito pie and the fries were fresh-cut, skin-on goodness. My eyes popped out of my head a little and my face had the fiendish grin of a certain bear that hadn't had a Frito pie in way, way too long.

If your headed south of town, get hungry and happen to be near Monte Vista, stop at JBs. It won't disappoint. 217 N Broadway St, Monte Vista, CO.

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