No, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day.
And it’s not about wearing sombreros and downing tacos and margaritas.
The holiday observes the 1862 Battle of Puebla, when the Mexican army won over the occupying French army, and it is mostly celebrated in the city of Puebla.
For many in the Mexican cuisine industry, the misconceptions surrounding the holiday extend to the country’s food as well. Area restaurant owners lament that Mexican cuisine often is associated only with burritos, chimichangas, fajitas and tacos.
“In Mexico, we have 32 states, [and] each of the states have their own traditions, customs and cuisine,” says Victor Bocos, co-owner of Casa Frida Mexican Cuisine in Fort Lauderdale. “That’s why authentic Mexican cuisine has so much diversity.”
If you’re looking for an authentic Cinco de Mayo experience, here’s a sampling of Mexican bars and restaurants to try out in South Florida.
Casa Frida Mexican Cuisine
5441 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-530-3668; CasaFridaMexicanCuisine.com
Bocos and his wife, Julieta Bocos, opened the Fort Lauderdale restaurant in 2012 with the intention of educating people about true Mexican fare. He describes the restaurant as a “visual, audio and gastronomic” experience.
Photos of Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera hang on the walls, and traditional music plays in the background. The menu (which includes a brief biography of Kahlo) features flavors from different parts of Mexico. There are green and red mole sauces that are cooked in-house and tacos served with soft corn tortillas.
In addition to margaritas, the restaurant serves micheladas (made with beer, lime juice, spices and Clamato juice) and palomas (a tequila-based cocktail) — two drinks that are more popular in Mexico than the margarita, he says.
“What we’re trying to do here is a combination of a little bit of history of Mexico, art, and a gastronomic experience,” he says.
A must-try, according to Victor Bocos, is the Chiles en Nogada, a green Poblano pepper stuffed with ground sirloin, almonds, apples and raisins stew, topped with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds.
The menu also features fajitas, burritos and quesadillas, because if you don’t have those, “people will go crazy,” Bocos says.
But he understands. “It’s not people’s fault. It’s that they don’t have the opportunity to learn,” he says.
He’s trying to change that. When customers walk in, Bocos often walks to the table to explain the concept of the restaurant. He’ll also teach diners how to eat certain dishes the “Mexican way.”
“Even if you feel sometimes kind of frustrated, you have the knowledge that people don’t know, or they don’t have the opportunity to try different things. So we just try to explain it to them,” he says. “And people love it … People are looking for something real, for something different.”
Taqueria Doña Raquel
791 S. Dixie Highway, Pompano Beach; 954-946-4490
This neighborhood taqueria in Pompano Beach has been serving traditional dishes for nearly 20 years. Since she first moved to Florida in 1989, Raquel Alejandre, 65, knew she wanted her own Mexican business.
Not everyone in her family thought a restaurant would thrive. “Who is going to eat mole?” she recalls one of her daughters asking. But Alejandre had faith. She built the menu using recipes she learned from her grandmother.
Corn tortillas are made fresh every morning, and tacos are topped with just raw onions, cilantro and lime juice. The menu also features tamales, green and red mole and chiles rellenos.
After years of having regular customers requesting a Cinco de Mayo celebration, Alejandre finally held one for the first time last year. The restaurant plans to repeat the block party this Friday, starting at 5 p.m.
“We do a typical Mexican celebration, bringing folkloric dance shows, Mariachis and Mexican music,” Alejandre says.
Agave Taco Bar
2949 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-530-9065
7750 Nova Drive, Suite A2, Davie; 954-530-3809
13040 W. State Road 84, Davie; 954-530-4321
9739 NW 41st St., Doral; 786-616-8119
Ivan Alarcon opened the first Agave in Davie seven years ago because he missed the food from his home country. He graduated from Nova Southeastern University with a degree in computer science but decided to pursue his taco business instead.
“When you’re far away from home, the first thing you do is you miss your culture, you miss your food,” says Alarcon, 39.
The taco bar has a fast-casual style. Customers can build their own tacos, choosing from traditional ingredients. The place features soft corn tortillas and homemade flour tortillas, traditionally from Monterrey in Mexico, where he grew up.
“In the northern part of Mexico, we actually eat a lot of flour, and that’s traditional to the city where I’m from,” he says. “I guess my cuisine is more regional. I think our flour tortillas definitely differentiate themselves from what everybody is accustomed to.”
The recipes come from his family. “You call mom, you call your grandma, you call your aunts, and ask, ‘Hey, how did you make this?’” he says. “And that’s how the recipes started evolving.”
Today, he has four locations: two in Davie and one each in Fort Lauderdale and Doral.
For Cinco de Mayo, all locations will celebrate with Mariachi bands and live music starting at 5 p.m. Food and drink specials will be available all day.
“In Mexico, it’s a day that’s celebrated, but not to the extent that we celebrate Independence Day in September,” Alarcon says. “We’re constantly trying to educate people, but at the same time, we also have to adapt and understand.
“So we do a big thing for Cinco de Mayo because everybody has the idea of going out and having fun, and putting on the sombrero and drinking margaritas.”
4115 N. Dixie Highway, Oakland Park; 954-563-2503
The idea behind this small restaurant is to serve dishes that taste like they came from a traditional Mexican home. Everything is made from scratch in the morning with fresh ingredients — even the corn tortillas, which are also sold to other local restaurants, including Agave Taco Bar.
“The recipes are mostly passed down from generation to generation, from my mom’s side of the family,” says Jonathan Guerrero, 34, owner of the restaurant. “She was the main cook at the beginning.”
They opened the restaurant in 2002. In the beginning, it was hard to bring in people willing to try Mexican dishes that were not covered in cheese, Guerrero says.
With time, the restaurant grew, serving dishes like barbacoa shredded beef, tamales, enchiladas and menudo (tripe) soup. The location also features a small food store with products from Central and South America.
Even though Tortilleria Mexicana is not planning a special celebration for Cinco de Mayo, Guerrero says it’s always a busy day, as people want to try new dishes.
“That’s when we try to take advantage of the situation to show the different flavors that there are, so people can get the other flavors of Mexico,” he says. “People just come. They know that it’s 100 percent Mexican.”
Cantina La Veinte
495 Brickell Ave., Miami; 786-623-6135; CantinaLa20.com; Facebook.com/La20Miami
This upscale restaurant started in Mexico City in 2011, showcasing dishes from throughout the country. Since then, Cantina La Veinte opened five additional locations in Mexico and one in Miami in 2014, the first one in the United States.
“We wanted to go to a city that’s really friendly and really Latin, and there were no Mexican restaurants here,” says executive chef Santiago Gomez, 34. “That’s why we preferred to come to Miami instead of going to Los Angeles or New York, because there are more Mexican restaurants there.”
Gomez has been with Cantina from the start. He adapted the menu for the Brickell location, featuring more seafood than in the restaurants in Mexico City because of the area’s proximity to the ocean.
Every four months, he changes the menu with seasonal ingredients. He’s currently proud of his whole snapper in Poblano sauce, served with shrimp and mushrooms.
“We use Poblano pepper, which is one of our most important peppers,” he says. “We try to get the flavor of the chili with the shrimp and the fish.”
About 50 percent of the restaurant’s ingredients come from Mexico, he says. They make corn tortillas from scratch every day, using Mexican corn.
The Brickell restaurant has two floors and a full bar.
“We’re trying to make it a flagship of Mexican food in a high-end concept, because the concept of Mexican restaurants in the U.S. [is] more casual,” he says. “We really want to show that, as Mexicans, we can do really good things, and be on the same level as the Japanese, the French and the Peruvian.”
For Cinco de Mayo, the restaurant will feature a celebration sponsored by Don Julio tequila, starting at 5 p.m. with a Mariachi band, a photo booth and a magic show.
“Obviously, we’re more than sombreros, chimichangas and Cinco de Mayo,” Gomez says. “We’re trying to showcase our traditions, flavors, music and our food. That’s why it’s good to have people in Cantina in those days, because they get to see traditional Mexican culture.”