NO “HOT CHEESE SAUCE” HERE
A buddy of mine from Texas, a cowboy named Wheeler Coe, passed through Hattiesburg recently with a few of his top hands, bound for a cattle sale somewhere down in south Georgia. And trying to be a good host, it was the right thing to do to try to satisfy their hankering for some bona fide Mexican food. They’re not runners or bicyclists. (Heck, I would die if they ever saw me in running shorts). So we set out to find some good Mexican food, not to do a ride on the Longleaf Trace. In the process, I found a new place to carbo-load.
“Not the Tex-Mex variety,” my friends all agreed. “We’d rather eat Chinese in Mississippi than Tex-Mex fajitas”. Bored with Texas BarBQue and not convinced anyone outside the lone star state knows how to cook it, my friends were skeptical that I could outdo them. I must admit, I was worried about it too, knowing that it was a tall order to satisfy the appetites of good friends who had treated me in the past to the best food and music that Texas has to offer. So knowing that the order would be hard to fill, the group set out for what would by the end of the evening be called the “best place for Mexican east of the Red River.”
I’ll admit that I had forgotten about La Cocina Mexicana, or the Mexican Kitchen as the place has been known for twenty-five years. Folks there don’t advertise much, and I don’t usually travel south on Highway 49 on a routine day. But I scored big points with my starving friends and got the promise of a big steak the next time I’m near Houston for treating them to one of the finest meals I’ve ever had in Hattiesburg.
Now I’m not sure if the building it’s in once served as host of a video store, but it seems like I remember as much. It looks like it anyway, which is part of the appeal. I do remember back in the old days, before hot cheese sauce was served with chips at the table in other places around town, that next to PayLess shoes was a little home-owned joint on Hardy Street by the same name. Not having been there in years, I crossed my fingers and hoped as our party arrived that old Frank from Monterey was still there, and that he’d not sold out and compromised the quality of his fare. I had a lot riding on it.
The place is a jewel. The smell of fresh corn tortillas roasting in the kitchen hit us as we found a table, (the opportunity of being seated by the hostess, Frank’s wife, is chancy), and the taste of the fresh guacamole was as good as anything an avocado garden could afford. But unlike most great things in life, which are best appreciated after a little time passes, we all agreed that the food was some of the best we’d ever had. And when the college boy at the table next to us asked Frank’s daughter if they had any “hot cheese sauce”, her reaction confirmed to me that we were in the right place.
“No cheese sauce here”, she replied testily.
Hearing that, Wheeler raised a toast to celebrate.
The waiters, most of whom looked bored, were nevertheless prompt and courteous. They ain’t from Mexico, but their only chore is to serve the food, not prepare it. That was right up our party’s alley.
The best bets are the small, medium, or large “plates”, which give the diner a sampling of several items. The enchilada is perfectly done, the tacos actually are topped with fresh lettuce and tomato, and the tamale is surely hand-rolled in a corn husk. We confirmed with Frank that prepping the fresh food is a daily chore, and left the restaurant hoping that no matter how bad the labor force gets, that old Frank will stay true to the quality that he now insists upon.
“No hot cheese sauce here”, reminisced Wheeler’s wife Sandy as we rode back home in silence. “What a profound statement about a place.”
In a world of prefabricated, canned, microwaved food, a person can taste freshness, and even in some cases, smell it. At La Cocina Mexicana, it’s all fresh.
And thank goodness, they don’t have any hot cheese sauce either…
I recommend the Mexican Kitchen as a great place to carbo-load before a big race. The reason is that since I ate there, I haven’t been hungry since, and it's been two whole days.