You’re looking at an icon from my childhood: the El Indio Restaurant on India Street in San Diego. For as long as I can remember, visiting El Indio with my dad was the highlight of the week. We’d buy their beef taquitos, garnished with shredded lettuce and salsa. They were rolled up in butcher paper, six to a packet, and I remember how eagerly I’d tear open the packet, releasing their savory fragrance. Whenever I bit into one, all was right with the world. Wherever I’ve lived in the world, wherever I’ve traveled, when I was under stress, I’d find myself craving one of those taquitos.
Last week, reeling from the emotional turmoil of emptying out my mom’s house in San Diego, I desperately needed an El Indio fix. So that’s where I headed.
The place has changed, of course. It used to be merely a tortilla factory that served food on the side; now it’s grown and has become so popular that the line of customers often stretches out the door. It’s even made it onto the culinary radar of Food TV.
But it will always be my El Indio, and a reminder of just how powerful childhood memories can be — especially memories of food. Food, I think, is what culture is really all about. Dishes that our mothers cooked for us. The particular melange of spices in our mothers’ kitchens.
When I write my books, I find myself often using food to evoke mood or character or relationships. Jane Rizzoli sits in her childhood kitchen and marvels at her mother’s exquisite cooking. Maura Isles sits alone and depressed at her kitchen table and dines on gin and a grilled cheese sandwich. A harried doctor slaps together a dinner of scrambled eggs. What we eat — and the care with which we prepare it — speaks volumes about our feelings at that moment.
And so, while I sat at El Indio last week, emotionally wrung out by the emotional demands of my San Diego visit, I found that biting into a taquito was almost a desperate act, precisely the sort of therapy that the daughter of a chef would crave.
Forget drugs; all I require is salsa.