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May 9, 2017
Viva Chile Verde
chile_verde_green2_FINAL[3]

A fictional story about a not-so-fictional chile verde recipe that possesses the power of persuasion.

That earthquake hit the restaurant pretty hard, popped all the windows. You couldn’t open any of the doors without a crowbar. Shut us down for a week. We probably could have opened in a couple days but the building inspector, that pendejo Francisco Torres was driving the streets, looking for trouble, and he flagged us. So now we have to repair to code and get inspected and signed off all along the way.

“This isn’t Mexico,” Francisco Torres told us, “This is the city of Los Angeles. You have to do it right.”  Like I didn’t know that. I know it’s not Mexico. That’s why I’m here.

They always give names to hurricanes or that other thing they call them, tropical storm. Hurricane Ethel, Tropical Storm George. Why don’t they give earthquakes names? They usually do more damage than hurricanes. The only name they’ll give to an earthquake is a fault line. The San Andreas. The Loma Prieta. That’s like naming a hurricane after the latitude where it started. I think earthquakes should have names.

I would have called this one Earthquake Francisco, because that’s who did the damage to me. He’d tell me to say Earthquake Frank. I’m the only one who calls him Francisco, to remind him where he came from. He won’t even say where his family is from or when they got here. He says he doesn’t care and he prefers Frank. He loves saying that—Let me be Frank, or Frankly speaking, I don’t like Chilangos, you guys are always trying to cut corners.

All this because of that one time we expanded the parking lot without his permits. A Chilango is a guy from Mexico City. They’re known to be pushy and loud and rude. They’re the New Yorkers of Mexico. They think, if it didn’t happen in Mexico City, it didn’t happen anywhere.

I’m not from Mexico City or anyplace near there. I boxed there a couple times but I never lived there. And Frank knows that, he just has it in for me. All for that one time with the parking lot.

What happened was that we needed more space for parking because the business was getting better and better. Ever since Jacob Silverman talked about my beans in the L.A. Times, we’ve had lines. I’m now known as the Burrito King of Shaky Town. Wolfgang Puck has been here, trying to figure out my beans, so has Joachim Splichal and that guy who ran St. Estephe, Jonathan Sedlar.

Silverman said my beans were “paragons of meaty virtue, perfectly firm to the bite but creamy within without a single split skin in a bushel, each bean singular, bursting with the flavors of the pot—pork, serrano chiles, onion and garlic—resonant beans that will haunt you the rest of the day, in a good way, the key to every dish served at this humble but pure outpost of Norteño cooking.”

We have that quote on the chalkboard over the daily specials and on two windows. I know it by heart and Jacob Silverman was right, we have the best beans in Los Angeles. The lines out the door prove that and so do the cars circling the block, looking for parking.

I tried to buy the lot next door, but the Liquor Store guy wouldn’t sell, or even let us rent any of his parking spaces. There was a lot of dirt between our lot and his lot and more dirt between the lot and the sidewalk on one side and the street on the other. At night, after we closed, I’d get out my shovel and cut out a few shovelfuls, put it in the back of the pickup I kept parked there and put the tarp back over the bed. When the bed got full, then I’d drive the pickup home and put the dirt in my garden. It was good top soil, my chiles and tomatillos loved it. Back at the lot, I’d tamp down the dirt and then a few grains of asphalt, very slow, an inch at a time, all the way around. It took almost a year, but then I had room for twenty cars where only twelve had been able to park.

My only mistake was that after six months and nobody had said nothing, I brought in a crew to lay down fresh asphalt on the whole lot and paint the parking spaces. Then the liquor store guy took a hard look and called the city. That was my first visit from my new friend Frank.

I knew as soon as he walked in the door how it was going to go. He asked for the owner and I introduced myself, “Marco Suárez, a sus órdenes.” He looked at me and said, “Well Mark, we need to talk.” I say sure, and take him to the office. We sit down and my boys do what they are supposed to do when I’ve taken a visiting cop or fire fighter or sales rep to the back; they bring in a little plate of queso fundido and rajas with chips, a couple salsas and the good coffee with cinnamon and get started on the fresh churros. I offer him some coffee and he holds up his Starbucks thermos. He looks at the plate of melted cheese and the roasted chile strips. He tells me, “I don’t eat that stuff.” When my guy brings in the fresh churros, smelling like heaven must smell, he looks at me and brings a baggy out of his brief case with carrot and celery sticks. “Mexican food is the enemy of the Mexicans,” Frank says.  “I told you before, I don’t like Chilangos, you guys are always trying to cut corners.  I’m going to put you back on the straight and narrow, ” and then he tells me what I’m going to have to do, to even start to think about bringing my parking lot up to code.

Once the surveyors and the permits and the contractors and the fines were all done, those eight free parking spaces cost me about two thousand bucks each.

And the whole time, every time Francisco signed off on an inspection, he’d tell me, “Don’t you feel better, Mark, knowing the law is on your side.”

I do. I do feel better knowing I have the law on my side. He never understood that about me. That’s because he doesn’t know about Mexico, where he and I come from. In Mexico, I could never do what I do here. In Mexico, for people like my people, you can do everything right and according to the law and they can still take your business away from you and give it to some PRI politician. In Mexico, people like me learn not to try. At least not in legal ways. Here, I embrace the law, I welcome its protection. I can’t do it, because of the way they treat immigrants, but in a few more years my kids could be Republicans.

Where I grew up, we really didn’t have any formal law or governmental authority. We were respectful, conservative and cautious people because that was the only way you could survive in a very hard and unforgiving land. I grew up in a town called El Rosario, in Baja California Norte. It’s about 280 kilometers south of Tijuana—215 miles.

I learned the value of caution, because I saw what happened to my father when he made one mistake.  My father, Princiliano Suárez, went to a wedding. It was for his favorite sister, Gloria, and she was marrying Onofre Sanchez, and my father was happy and for the first time in his life he drank too much. He got up the next day and went diving for abalone. By himself. His boat drifted because the anchor slipped, and he got lucky and found a new bed of abalone no one had ever seen, about 130 feet down. He filled both bags and, filled also with the deserved joy of two days of luck, he headed to the surface. He came up just a little too fast and got a very small case of the bends. There wasn’t a decompression chamber in Rosario then but he wouldn’t have made it there in time any way.  That ended his life as a respected elder in Rosario. He could still dive, but not below 90 feet.   The cash income from abalone was gone. Within six months, he made the decision. He went to Ensenada to work on the docks.

He worked as a longshoreman, and the money was good.  He saved every peso he could, sharing a small house with six other men. One of the men was from Uruapan in Michoacán. His name was Marco Martinez—I am named after him—but everyone called him “Carnitas” Martinez. Uruapan is famous for two things, avocados and pigs. Both are the best in Mexico, which probably means the best in the world. You butcher a pig from Uruapan and the meat is so tender it drips off the bone.

Marco did most of their cooking, every Saturday, carnitas, which they sold to the neighbors, but Marco also made what became my father’s favorite, chile verde.

In two years, my father had saved enough money to come home and open a restaurant. The specialties were my mother’s beans—Socorro’s frijoles, the beans I am now famous for—and Marco’s Chile Verde. This was in 1967, the year that the Transpeninsular Highway was completed and Rosario became part of the world. Within the year, my father was famous. Every tourist, fisherman and off-road racer who stopped at the Pemex station for gas, would also, as my father liked to say, cross the street for more gas—Cruzar la calle para más gas—Marco’s chile verde.

I loved working in the restaurant, after school, maybe it was being around so many happy people. Everybody was on vacation and going someplace they wanted to be. They loved the food and the cervezas and my pretty sisters who took their orders. They couldn’t pronounce my father’s name, so they called him Prince, then since my name was Marco, and my name was on the menu, they started calling me El Reyito, The Little King.

When I was ten, my father started me boxing. He’d been a local champion as a boy and boxed as far away as Tijuana. He wanted the same for me and I followed his path at first. I was El Reyito de Rosario as an amateur, but I was better than my father. He had a bad chin and I could take a punch, and my hands were very fast.

I boxed 12 years as a pro. I started as a lightweight in Juárez and finished as a middleweight in Los Angeles. I also worked for a restaurant in Highland Park, Barragan’s, so they called me “The Battling Busboy”. I knew it was time to quit when my manager said he was thinking about selling advertising space on the soles of my shoes because I was getting knocked down so much.

I retired from boxing. I was 31 and I told myself my father gave me two legacies. He taught me how to box and he taught me how to make chile verde. The first supported me in my youth, the second will sustain me for the rest of my life.

By then, I’d gotten a taste for Los Angeles and wanted to stay. I started cooking at Barragan’s. Weekends, I sold tacos at the Alameda Swap Meet. I didn’t give up any family secrets at either place. I was saving those for my own place.

After a year and two months—I was counting—I took over Mamacitas in Shaky Town. Mamacita’s was old school—you could recite the waitress’ warning before she said it—“Be careful, very hot plate,” as she set down the platter of molten beans and cheese food and whatever was buried under the red sauce. I renamed the place Marco’s. Things changed slowly, and then in a hurry. Marco’s was sustained by locals and the chile verde, then Jacob Silverman made me famous, and the city of Los Angeles traveled to Shaky Town to eat.

Things would have probably have been perfect except for Hurricane Frank. I don’t know why he had such a hard-on for me, but he did. I’m told I have a strong personality. Maybe too strong for his taste. Frank got his buddies at the Health Department to step up their visits, then the Fire Marshals. They didn’t really represent a problem but they were an annoyance. We always got a clean bill and an A rating from the Health, and if you give a Fire Marshal a fresh churro and café de ola with a little cinnamon, he’s yours for life. Then Frank started bringing around new building inspectors for training sessions. That wasn’t just annoying, that was insulting. Marco’s illegal parking lot became exhibit number one for Frank’s class on how Immigrants-who-don’t-respect-the-law try to cheat the city and endanger the public.

But that was also his mistake. He brought his trainees by on a slow Tuesday, about 11:30. I watched him in the parking lot, lecturing his five trainees.  He brought out his little wheel measurer and rolled it and showed the original dimensions with a chalk line and then the totally illegal land-grab by the Chilango, but while he was lecturing, I could see he was losing them. It was lunchtime. One by one, the five heads came up from their studied attention to Frank’s chalk-lines to sniff the air. They looked like puppies out there tasting the breeze. You could see them inhaling the clean, soapy smell of perfect beans, the sizzle of carne asada and the heavenly scent of frying onions and roasting chiles. Those boys and girls were hungry.

I walked out to the parking lot, smiling.  As I approached them, I held up a hand in greeting. “Ola, Francisco,” I said. That made one of the boys and one of the girls smile. “Que tal. Good mornings to you.”

Frank looked liked I’d squirted lemon juice in his mouth. “This is Mark,” he said. “The owner of this, this, uhh, establishment.”

I turned to his students,”Bienvenidos,” I said, “Welcome. I know that Frank has been telling you about how he showed me the error of my ways.”  I nodded his way, “Thank you again, Frank.  And now that I’m walking the straight and narrow, and I’m no longer a Chilango, I’d like to show my gratitude and invite a group of hardworking city employees to lunch. My treat.”

Frank looked like he’d swallowed the devil.  He pointed to me and stabbed a finger.  “Now this is exactly what I warned you about.  Under no circumstances may you accept any gratuity, service, product or accommodation from any business owner. You are an employee of the City of Los Angeles, and like Caesar’s wife, you must be beyond suspicion.  No corners cut, that keeps you on the straight and narrow.”

The boys and girls weren’t happy.  I stepped up. “I’m sorry, Frank.  Forgive my gratitude. But let me check this with you. All policemen and policewomen, firefighters and Armed Service personnel in uniform are granted a 20% discount on their bill at Marco’s. This is a matter of respect.  That is also given to all city workers in uniform or with I.D.  Is that okay with Caesar?”

That same boy and girl who had smiled when I called him Francisco, were grinning now. Frank stiffened, but he admitted, “Yes, a posted discount is legal.” I made a note to myself to see the printer in the morning for menu cards. For today it would go on the chalkboard.

“And it is lunchtime,” I continued, “and city employees are entitled to an hour lunch break, I believe.”

“It is noon,” the bravest boy said, and Frank nodded sourly. The boys and girls broke for the front door of Marco’s.  Frank went to eat in his car.

I made sure that the boys and girls were happy and the churros did not appear on their discounted bills. When they were leaving, the brave boy and girl introduced themselves, Bill Madrid and Caroline—some last name with rolling Z’s and K’s and Y’s in it.  It sounded like someone cracking a whip. I couldn’t keep up. “Great meal,” Bill said. Caroline was glowing, like she’d just learned something. “I love your chile verde,”

Caroline said, “Can I get the recipe?”

She had a real sparkle but I had to say no. “If I gave you that recipe,” I said, “My father would dance on my grave after he’d killed me. And he’s been dead eight years. But that chile verde will be here any time you stop by.”

“We’ll be back,” Bill said.

And they did come back. Those five, and then, finally, everyone in the Building Inspection Department, in shifts at lunch time. Caroline was faithful, a chile verde burrito three times a week. She said she was hooked. Bill was there every day, to pick up the to-go orders.

That 20% discount took a little nip in my bottom line, but the volume made up for it, and Building Inspection more than made up for it when they had me cater their holiday party. I’ve got no liquor license but they let me handle the bar anyway, because it was a private party, and that was a license to steal.

I didn’t actually attend. I knew Frank wouldn’t want to see me—he’d been outvoted on the catering—and I had to keep the restaurant going with a calavera crew. The catering bunch said it was a good party. Nobody went crazy but they were happy and the party got very loose. $15.00 Herradura in $80.00 Patrón bottles has that effect on some civil servants.

I got the rest of the story on the holiday party in January. Bill Madrid came to pick up the lunch order and he walked in with a wink. “Notice anything different on our order?”

I looked down the list.  Nothing seemed that different.  Chiles relleños, more chicken than usual, but that was usual. People went on diets after New Year’s. Three chile verde burritos.

“Chile verde?”

“You made a convert. Or Caroline did. Frank was pretty drunk on that good Patrón and Caroline called him a gringo because he wouldn’t eat any of the food.  He ate some chile verde, just to show her, and then he ate some more, and then it was like he remembered he was Mexican.  He finished the whole tray. And now, he orders a chile verde burrito, every day, for lunch.”

“Chispas!” I said, “Is he still trying to impress Carolina?”

“Maybe,” Bill said, “But I don’t think it’s working.  I really think he’s addicted to your chile verde.”

“I’m happy for Frank,” I said. “Maybe my chile verde will do him some good. Tell you what, Bill. From now on, Frank gets a free burrito. Every day. My treat.”

“You know he won’t accept that.”

“He doesn’t have to know. Just you and I will know. For now.”  I could see the thought cross Bill Madrid’s face, as he understood what I was doing.

“I’ll even write it up. Every day on the receipt.  One chile verde burrito for Frank Torres—No Charge.  You keep your copy. I’ll keep my copy.  That should satisfy Caesar.”

I handed over the amended receipt. “Here you go, Guillermo.  See you tomorrow.”  He put it in his shirt pocket, “Don’t do Guillermo. I hate the sound of that name. Call me Willie. That’s what they called me in high school.”

I don’t know whether Willie collected for the burrito from Frank, but he collected those receipts. For the first month, he put the receipt in an envelope with the others, then in a little accordion file. It’s been seven months now. Where this will lead I don’t know, but I know Willie Madrid is ambitious.

My father said, all those years ago, when he was teaching me Marco Martinez’s recipe: “Pay attention. You learn to make this chile verde and you will never be poor and you will always have friends and even your enemies will love this recipe.”

Marco Martinez’s Chile Verde Recipe

This story was published in TASTE’s Spring 2017 Fiction Issue. More stories from the issue can be found here.

Lou Mathews

Lou Mathews was once a restaurant reviewer in Los Angeles for seven years and 43 pounds. He is a notorious home cook. The chile verdé recipe is his, adapted over 20 + years from his Uncle Jesús’s recipe. Jesús says only raccoons wash their food and only Mexican coke will do.