Max Sussman knows food.
The co-owner of the Veggie Wagon in Carolina Beach works with it everyday and, even when he goes on vacation, he can’t help himself.
So when the Virginia Beach native and his wife, April, visited Mexico last month with some friends, the Sussmans made sure to immerse themselves in the language, the culture and, of course, the traditional Mexican food.
“This visit really opened my eyes to lots of things,” said Sussman, 36, who operates two Veggie Wagon locations in Carolina Beach with his wife and will open a third in Wilmington this spring.
“As far as Mexican goes, the only thing that we do is homemade canned salsas,” he said. “But after this trip, I think we’re going to expand into some new dishes.”
The Veggie Wagon is a locally-owned produce company that specializes in delivery of fresh local North Carolina fruits, vegetables, and homemade products. Their shops also have a wholesale component, and delivers community-supported agriculture baskets, as well as homemade snacks and goodies to breweries in Wilmington, the Triangle and across the country.
Through their business, the Sussmans have been supporting local farmers since they opened in 2009. But about once a year — and if their busy schedule allows it — they go on one international trip to see what else is out there.
This one-week excursion took them to Ixtapa, Mexico, a small tourist area, located on the country’s Pacific Ocean coast and about 150 miles northwest of Acapulco.
The couple honeymooned in Mexico more than 11 years ago, so this was not their first jaunt south of the border but, “with all the negative stuff you hear about there, it sort of fell off our radar,” Sussman said.
Over the last decade, violence related to drug trafficking has been a black eye for the country, which is America’s third-largest trading partner in the world. In 2006, the Mexican military began to intervene as the government’s principal goal has been to reduce the drug-related violence.
All of this has wreaked havoc on Mexico’s tourism industry.
“It was the peak of their tourism season and no one was there,” said Sussman, whose vacation group rented a villa on a cliff high above town that overlooked the marina.
“The place was a six-hour drive from Acapulco, which yes, unfortunately, has a problem with the drug cartels. But that’s six hours away,” he said. “I grew up in Virginia Beach and that’s like saying there is a gang problem in Blacksburg, so people should stop traveling there.”
So the Sussmans enjoyed some of the perks. They had “access to everything” and that included a personal chef for the house, a maid and a driver to get them around.
Sussman immediately made friends with the chef, who did not speak English, but they communicated through their love for food.
“I showed her how to make hashbrowns for breakfast one morning and that just blew her mind,” he said. “It was really incredible the way they cook down there and how they don’t waste anything. The refrigerator was full of avocados, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro and even more tomatoes. That’s it, really. They made three meals a day out of that and nothing repeated itself. It was amazing.”
Despite their language barrier, Sussman and the cook shared different recipes for salsa, hot peppers, fish, meat preparation and more.
One day when the group went out for a boat trip, Sussman stayed back with the cook and they prepared a dinner together that featured grilled fish, with an onion and cilantro marinade, plenty of different salsas and an American charcuterie plate with spicy hams and cheeses.
“It’s a different flavor people in the States are not used to,” Sussman said. “We’re getting ready to get a meat production license at the Veggie Wagon and the first thing I hope to introduce is this barbacoa recipe we picked up there. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before this trip.”
Outside of the kitchen, Sussman also learned about buying and cooking raw products and how everything in Mexico is roasted over open flames to make it softer before cooking it.
On the first day of the trip, Sussman’s driver took him to a neighboring town called Zihuatanejo, which is famous because it features the fictional beach that Tim Robbins’ character in the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption” escaped to after breaking out of prison.
The final scene in that movie was actually filmed in Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands — not Zihuatanejo — but don’t ask Sussman any movie trivia.
“Yeah, I don’t really watch movies so I had no idea,” he said.
Instead of following in the footsteps of the wrongly-convicted Andy Dufresne, Sussman made the 30-minute trip to Zihuatanejo almost every single day of his vacation to see the town’s open-air market, which sold everything from fresh produce to handmade shoes to tortilla presses.
“We pulled up that first day and they had refrigerated trucks and these guys were slinging half a cow over their shoulder and then hanging them on meat hooks,” Sussman said. “They also had a band right there in front of the meat. They started playing and it was like they were celebrating the delivery of the meat. One guy was banging on a cowbell. It was wild stuff.”
The welcome party for the meat just enticed Sussman even more to see what was on offer. After the first day at the market, when his driver took him to a friend who attempted to overcharge the tourist, Sussman decided to do some more exploring on his own within the market.
He ended up buying fresh produce each day and his vacation group enjoyed the bounty during dinner each night. Negotiating with the vendors was a daily adventure in itself.
“Unless I’m drinking tequila, I’m not speaking Spanish in the States,” said Sussman, who brushed up on the language during a trip to Nicaragua last year.
“But the language barrier was a neat situation because everyone there was willing to try,” he said. “I would try to talk Spanish to our driver and he would try to answer in English. We both wanted to practice so I got four years of schooling in one week. We crushed it.”
Sussman said he would recommend Mexico getaways or vacations to anyone and he advises others to do their research on a particular place before writing it off because of alleged crime or violence.
The Sussmans are already dreaming of their next international adventure — Italy and Vancouver are on their wish list — but he said a return trip to Mexico, for the food alone, will always be in the conversation.
“It was cool to see how many ways they can break down limited ingredients and we learned a lot of new ways to prepare food,” Sussman said.
“The flavors they have down there are so bold. Their mild was the hottest thing I’ve ever had and I like hot stuff. To put it honestly: What we think of Mexican food in America is not even close. We had to go down there to realize that and I’m glad we did.”
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