Like Chinese and Italian food, "authentic" Mexican has become so successfully assimilated into the American palate that it is widely available and widely the same. The situation is both celebratory and unfortunate at once a mark of the growth and integration of Spanish-speaking people into American culture and a reminder of the risk of cultural erasure. A burrito here is like a burrito there, and salsa and chips are everywhere.
And so it is with some relief that La Milpa doesn't call itself "authentic," but, rather, "real." Located out Hull Street Road just west of the Chippenham overpass, La Milpa is the kind of place you, while on your vacation in Baja, would hope to find when you ask where the locals go. La Milpa is part market and part truck stop. There is produce, from jicama to cactus, and dry goods like corn husks, chipotle corn chips and Mexican fried bread. There are hats, shirts and Mexican music CDs. At La Milpa, which has been open for nearly one year, you can send money to Mexico, and it's the only place I know where you can buy a Teletubby pinata.
But La Milpa also is part eat-in and carryout tacoria more taco stand than restaurant and home to the freshest tacos in town. Handmade, these delicate, 6-inch soft corn or flour tortillas come three to an order with pork, grilled steak, barbecue or marinated steak ($6.49), and topped with fresh onions and cilantro. On my first visit, while waiting for my order of alambre (steak, ham, bacon, onions, poblano peppers and melted cheese, $7.99), I was treated to a taste of taco de lengua (tongue) which, if you can get past the idea, is very good, especially with a healthy dose of their homemade tomatillo and jalapeno pepper sauce. There's also taco de tripa, which is exactly as it sounds.
All food orders at La Milpa, which means "the corn field," are taken at the counter, and they call your number when they're up. On a recent visit with a large group we sampled a variety of items from the menu including a mostly flavorless pozole (chicken, pork and hominy stew, $6.99), one of three stews featured only on weekends. The very large and spicy California burrito (steak, peppers, beans, cheese, $3.95) was a big hit, as was the enchilada verde (chicken smothered in tomatillo sauce, $4.99), both for their value and flavor. The sides of beans and rice are far superior to the flat-tasting bill of fare more commonly served elsewhere.
Other items on the menu include camarones y plantains (shrimp, bananas and rice in garlic sauce, $8.99); coctel de camaron con pulpo (shrimp-and-octopus cocktail, $7.99); and a variety of $3.99 combinaciones of tacos, enchiladas and burritos. That makes La Milpa not only good but a good deal.
And a welcome change from the same Mexican-American food found elsewhere. I'll be back once I figure out what to do with cactus, or maybe to try their weekend stews: Friday, gallina (chicken stew); Sunday, menudo (tripe that is, stomach). Then again, maybe I'll leave that for those with stronger menudos.
La Milpa 6925 Hull Street Road 276-3391 Open every day 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.