“I want tacos, not chingaderas,” my wife said. We looked down at our plates, courtesy of a local Mexican restaurant, the fourth or fifth to fail to meet Mex-pectations. Orange cheese, tomato sauce, hamburger with generic taco seasoning. All the sins were accounted for. This particular place had even used baked brown beans. The sweet odor of molasses hit us before the plates hit the table. It was beginning to look hopeless.
The Latino population where we live is not what I wish it where. There are, however, a lot of gringos who are more than happy to accept inferior versions of Mexican food. Or as my wife refers to them, “chingaderas.” My own father horrified my wife by slapping great wads of peanut butter and strawberry jam on his tortillas.
The places here that have failed the taco-test have either been outright terrible or… how should I say this: they don’t trust the source material. They try too hard. When you add exotic ingredients and sauces and fuse with other cooking styles, the taco becomes something complicated. I like catfish and I like butter chicken – just not in a tortilla.
My wife and I aren’t looking for chile rellenos or huachinango veracruzana or cabrito al pastor. We’re looking for tacos. Simple tacos. No exotic seafood tacos with fruit salsa or chutney. No ground beef fast food drive through fare monstrosities. Those are what my wife calls “Mexican sins.” I’m just taking about plain old tacos al pastor, memories of which are enough to make me drool. Tacos al carbon or al vapor like I had in Monterrey for breakfast.
Even when we make them ourselves, it just isn’t the same. And I’ve discovered why. It’s the tortilla. Tortillas in Mexico are different from the ones here. And sadly, even in Mexico, a good traditional handmade tortilla is not the easy find it once was. The pat pat pat of tortillas being patted out by the wizened hands of Mexican ladies has been replaced by the plop plop plop of the tortilla machine that churns out kilos a minute. But still, when you have a taco off the cart in Monterrey… it’s a TACO!
Some detective work revealed to me the secrets of tortillas. Made of maize ground into masa, tortillas have been around since well before the days of the Aztecs. Traditionally, maize was made by soaking the corn in a solution of slaked lime and water. Slaking means to add the lime to water and let it bubble and stand. The water is then used to soak the corn. This removes the skin of the kernel and releases niacin. The corn is then rinsed to remove the lime and rubbed to remove the husks. What you have then is called nixtamal.
This process is why tortillas in Mexico taste so different from the bland ones available here in el norte. I’ve had tortillas made with whole wheat flour and all manner of exotic grains. We should call these simply ‘flatbreads’ if we have to call them something, because they are NOT tortillas. In bigger cities in the north, many people seem to prefer their tortilla from the local H.E.B or Soriana. These tortillas are manufactured on a large scale, and filled with preservatives and ingredients that really don’t need to be in there. But at least these abominations aren’t hazardous in the short term. The popular alternative, hard yellow shells that shatter in the hands and lodge under the gums, are the real chingaderas. It’s worth the time to seek out a tortilleria. Many of the smaller ones are still family owned and you’ll get a friendly smile and perhaps a Spanish lesson if you’re lucky!
The other thing, of course, is the meat. Hamburger meat, dripping with grease and soaked in taco seasoning, drops from your fingers to the plate. Or the lap or the floor. It’s easier to just crush the damn thing and call it a taco salad and eat it with a fork.
I’ve written before about barbacoa but, in short, it’s meat, including or sometimes just, tongue. Wrapped in banana leaves usually and then buried in a pit and slow cooked, it is meat, not meat byproduct.
Meat is then introduced to taco. Beef, pork or my personal favorite, cabrito. I’ve never had shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, yellow shredded cheese added to my tacos in Mexico. (I can’t claim to have been to every corner of Mexico and I know that Mexican cooking is as varied and regional as Chinese cooking. Saying ‘Mexican food’ is a horrible overstatement. Sometimes a dish can be unique to a village. So I’m just qualifying myself so as not to look like too big a snob.)
One of my favorite taquerias is located in a small town on the pacific coast. Buen Gusto has the most amazing tacos al pastor. Tacos al pastor are made with pork rubbed with dried chilies and then stacked on a spit with pineapple rings. It sits and cooks all night as small pieces are sliced off for the tacos. It’s accompanied at Buen Gusto with a simple ranchero salsa and some salsa picante. Sitting out front, with a cold one, enjoying the evening breeze and watching people head to the town square, it’s easy to forget the time of day or even one’s own name. It’s close to nirvana.
That might be another reason tacos here are not as good – the ambiance is part of the appeal. The tortilla is a staple of Mexican kitchens and a taco is Mexican fast food, usually eaten in the street. Honking horns and music should be part of the ingredients.