61ºF

Exploring Chihuahua: Food and culture in northern Mexico

The continental divide at Copper Canyon. (More Content Now)

I followed the path of Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa, legendary leader of the 1914 Mexican Revolution, when I crossed the U.S.-Mexican border into the state of Chihuahua from El Paso, Texas.

Unlike Pancho, who offered “gold and glory” to qualified gringos — machine gunners, dynamiters and railroaders — I was accompanied by a group of travelers following an itinerary curated by Cesar Castellanos of Copper Canyon Expeditions. And unlike Pancho’s troops, we weren’t on horseback but in an air-conditioned van traveling down a long, dry stretch of desert highway in relative comfort.

It had occurred to me to fly down to the city of Chihuahua, but then I would have missed three exciting stops along the way: walking the adrenaline-provoking catwalk that spans the Border Control area, enjoying Mennonite cheese quesadillas for breakfast at Paisanos in Ahumada, and a chance to witness the burrito food trucks down the road — burritos first made the food scene in Juárez.

From breakfast, we drove for hours before a stop at the Mennonite Museum for a lesson on the history of these European and Canadian immigrants and how they produce their own agricultural equipment, domestic implements, educational tools, and means of transportation and recreation. Because their core belief, “lack of vanity,” is engrained, children’s dolls are made without faces. These blond, blue-eyed Mennonites in Mexico live a sustainable and peaceful life, supported by the sale of their jarred fruits, jams and agricultural offerings.

Juarez street art

Museums make me hungry, so I was glad our next stop was The Rib Shack. Seated at the picnic table on this Mennonite-owned food truck, I tore into tender barbecued ribs, crisp broccoli slaw and a small mountain of fries. Sorry, cooks of Chihuahua, but I’ll take a pass on the carne seca (dried mystery meat) and another pass on sotol (a smoky distilled spirit made from fermented agave root), especially the “healing” version of this libation macerated with a full-size rattlesnake. Yes, I’ll happily trade those native specialties for good ’ole ribs; Rib Shack was among my favorite food stops of the trip.

At every stop we made, we came across the off-leash dogs of Chihuahua, but saw no teacup versions from the original breed brought into Mexico by Chinese workers centuries ago. Vigorously bred, these Chihuahuas are now medium in size, friendly and non-yapping. As the proud owner of a purebred Chihuahua, it was fascinating to see the similarities and evolution of the breed.

Somehow, during a view of Copper Canyon, Castellanos convinced us to hike to the Continental Divide, which required more endurance and rock-climbing skills than I thought I possessed, but the thrill and the view were worth it — even in cowboy boots.

We met nothing but welcoming, warm-hearted people in this region of northern Mexico. I was especially taken by the indigenous Tarahumara we met on a stop in Copper Canyon, and the women of Valle de los Monjes (Valley of the Monks) who prepared and served our lunch at The Cusarare Hotel. More astounding than the hearty bowls of lentil soup and the enchiladas made with Mennonite cheese (a pale yellow, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese that is made much like cheddar) was the fact that the entire meal was cooked without electricity. No, there was no power outage, that’s just the way the Valle de los Monjes women do it.

While visiting Chihuahua, it was pointed out to us that much of the crime and violence we read about in the news is related to the attempted smuggling of firearms to Mexico from the United States, and of course various drugs being transported from Mexico into the U.S. I felt quite safe wherever we were, thanks to Castellanos, who knew the lay of the land and kept our group in his care, even as we witnessed a drug bust just outside Pancho Villa’s adobe Casa Blanca.

The drama at those security checkpoints fueled our adrenaline and resulted in strong appetites as we prepared for our final evening’s dinner. It was served on the outdoor patio of Flor de Nogal in the city of Juárez and is one of several restaurants run by renowned Mexican Chef Oscar Herrera, whose menus are known to blend traditional and contemporary cuisine.