A Mexican Staycation

Do you like the beach? Do you like Mexican food? Do you like eating Mexican food at the beach? Did you know that you can do that less than 30 miles east of downtown Cleveland? Here are some ways in which you can discover your own Northeast Ohio Mexican staycation.

8am: Arrive in Painesville

Painesville is a small city in Lake County located along the Grand River just south of Lake Erie. The city has seen a demographic shift since the 1990s, when an influx of expatriates from Mexico relocated to work in the area’s nurseries. The shift occurred quickly, and it shows no signs of abating, which has resulted in Painesville becoming a hotspot for Mexican food. It’s an interesting time in the evolution of Painesville when much of the food hasn’t been re-engineered for maximum appeal, but instead is still authentically Mexican, and delicious.

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Visiting for the day, your first stop is a traditional Mexican breakfast of tamales and champurrado at La Mexicana, a grocery store in downtown Painesville. La Mexicana offers aluminum pots with a variety of tamales—including masa stuffed with spicy pork in red salsa, chicken in green salsa, and a personal favorite, rajas, aka sautéed peppers. Open a pot, see what looks and smells good, and stuff a few tamales into nearby plastic bags. They’ll stay delicious, unrefrigerated and steaming in plastic, all day. At about $2 each, don’t be afraid to treat yourself and sample a few.

Located next to the tamales are large Styrofoam cups of champurrado, a hot, comforting brown elixir. Champurrado is a corn flour-based drink that is the love child of hot chocolate and rice pudding. It’s made with the same type of masa used to make tamales or tortillas, and typically contains sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. The masa is stirred with milk, water, or a combination of both to create a drink that is akin to a thinbodied pudding. It is the perfect accompaniment to those warm tamales. Coffee and donuts are good. Tamales and champurrado are much, much better.

8:30–11am: Enjoy the Beach

Now that you’re loaded down with breakfast foods, you’re going to need some place to eat. We’d suggest the nearby Mentor Headlands, the largest natural sand beach in Ohio. This is an ideal spot for enjoying those savory tamales and the corn-based chocolatey beverage.

You may be ready for more snacks after a leisurely morning on the shore. And if it’s Saturday morning, you can head over to Johnnycake Ridge Road. On a field behind a church, you’ll find a Painesville youth soccer league creating a village of sorts, with different age groups playing soccer. Food vendors serve tacos and tortas stuffed with everything from chorizo to stewed chicharones. We suggest you focus on the ceviche stand, where they’re loading crisp tostadas with generous portions of marinated shrimp, tomato, and hot sauce for $6 a plate. This is one of the greatest seafood bargains in Northeast Ohio. Enjoy the atmosphere and the al fresco dining. Just be sure not to hit the food at the soccer fields too hard because there’s more food on deck.

11:30am: First Lunch, Then Soup

From light and creamy squash blossom soups, to rich and offal-studded menudos, to life-giving chile-slicked birrias, soups might be the greatest vehicle to show off the range of flavors and textures found in traditional Mexican food.

To experience soup bliss, head back to La Mexicana. This time, walk past the tamale pots, hang a right, and enter El Señor’s, a taquería located inside the grocery store. There is much great food to be experienced in this taquería, but on Saturdays, you are there for the soup, a bowl of pozole verde, a soup studded with poached white-meat chicken and hominy.

Unless you speak Spanish, ordering the soup can be confusing. Our advice is this: when you’re asked what you want in the soup, respond by saying “everything.” You’ll be rewarded with lettuce, radish, and avocado, and whatever other accompaniments are available. Fortify your soup with fresh lime juice and hot sauce if you’d like. Find a quiet seat in the taquería or out front if the weather is nice, and enjoy the gigantic bowl of soup with a side of tostadas. Pozole is the apex of Mexican soul food. It can be red, green, or even white, and at its best, it reminds you that this world can be a beautiful, magical, and comforting place.

12:30pm: Walk-Off Lunch, Then Have a Quesadilla

So you think you’re full? Just give it a few minutes. We suggest a brief walk down the street from La Mexicana to Joughin Hardware. Whether you’re into DIY, gardening, or just love old buildings and antique tools, this shop—in business since 1877—is a must-see. If you can’t find something at Joughin’s, you probably don’t really need it. Conversely, you’re sure to find plenty of stuff you don’t need, but really have to have. The second floor doubles as a little history museum. Walking through the store is the perfect way to patronize a local business and free up some stomach space for quesadillas.

After visiting Joughin’s, it’d be easy to blow past La Casita on the way out of town. The low-key tortillaria and grocery store looks like a smaller version of La Mexicana, but failing to stop here would be a major oversight. The fragrant, fresh corn tortillas produced in the store are themselves worthy of a detour, but the real gem is hidden out back. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, a taco cart serves a variety of Mexican street foods, including what might be the best quesadillas we’ve had anywhere. The fillings choices are standard, but our favorite, with chorizo and cheese, was executed to perfection. The staff heats up the cooked chorizo and places stringy cheese on the flattop while warming fresh, oversized corn tortillas. That melted and caramelized cheese and spiced and slightly oily chorizo creates a harmony of flavors and textures that would make a grilled cheese sandwich ashamed of itself. La Casita didn’t invent griddling cheese for quesadillas, but they have certainly mastered the technique. The cart is open until midnight on Friday and Saturday, and 11pm Sunday.

And now, full, it is time to go home.

La Mexicana is located at 170 E. Washington St. The youth soccer league plays at 10810 Johnnycake Ridge Rd. Find Joughin Hardware at 23 S. State St. and La Casita at 484 N. State St.