Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hola Taqueria, Batman!

The Man and I have been attempting to expand our local eating out options by trying a couple of local taquerias. With the large influx of Hispanics in the Southern U.S., it’s hard not to find a least 1 or 2 of these little places hanging out in strip shopping centers in every town.

Being the curious type, I’ve sort of been warily circling these places…like some sort of great gringo shark, I guess…and trying to find out what the deal is and the whole "etiquette," if you will, of eating in one of these places.

I know that tacquerias serve more authentic food that your local Big Gaudy Mexican chain restaurant (BGMCR), even if your BGMCR is sort of a locally owned chain, owned by actual Hispanic peoples. And, I’m not totally knocking the BGMCR, because I truly loved Rio Bravo, even though they were once owned by the hated Applebee's. They had this little corn soufflé garnish thing that was to die for!, and I was most sad when they pulled up stakes and moved out of the ATL. It looks like they are totally gone now...sniff.

In my Previous Life, i.e., the job from which I was “downsized,” I had the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico to work with a customer. The Man went with me, and we had a really grand time roaming around the “other side” of Puerto Rico, i.e., the part that was not San Juan.

The first day I was on site with the customer, we were preparing to go to lunch. The head of the project on their side, a woman named Norma, offered up Quiznos, KFC, Subway, etc….all these franchise options. Who the hell would want to eat that, when I was essentially in a foreign country (foreign to me, at least, since I had never been to PR before)?

In no uncertain terms—well, I was polite about it—I told her that I wanted to eat local. That I wanted to eat what she would have eaten for lunch today, provided it wasn’t Quiznos, KFC, etc. She sort of reluctantly agreed, probably thinking it was a BAD IDEA, and that I would hate whatever we had to eat.

Norma took me to the PR equivalent of a “meat and three,” meaning a little local café that had a lunch menu that offered several entrees and a list of vegetables. If you are unfamiliar with this type of eatery, it’s usually found in small Southern towns and has the words “down home cooking” as part of their signage. You select one meat offering and 3 vegetables, and the meal usually comes with either a drink or dessert, or sometimes both.

The menu of course is in Spanish, of which I do not speak, much to my chagrin. I told Norma that I wanted pork, rice, and beans in some combination. She helped me puzzle out the many words for the pork preparations that were on the menu, and I essentially ended up with carnitas and rice with pigeon peas…and flan! After I had essentially licked the plate at the end of our meal, I think Norma decided that I was serious about eating local and would be worthy of a meal at a bigger and better café the next day, AND directions to a great place near the water for dinner.

So, the whole point of that story was the guidance I received from Norma in ordering in places where English is not the first language spoken, which is pretty normal in the tacquerias. You need to be armed with a smattering of knowledge about what “pastor” means (usually pork roasted on a spit), and know that if you order a torta, you are getting a sandwich, etc.

A couple of Saturdays ago, on our way out of town for the infamous Easter Brunch and Peep Spitting Contest, we stopped at a place that was highly recommended by some folks on our local online dining forum. It's part supermercado (super market) and part tacqueria, with a butcher counter and produce bins, along with many shelves of neatly arranged Hispanic products.

We each got a couple of tacos (I got the al pastor and the carne asada, and The Man got the al pastor and the pork skin (cuertos, I think...). They were great! And about a million light years away from Taco Hell (Bell). Little chunks of meat on small corn tortillas, with grilled onions a nd jalapenos, and an addition of a little fresh cilantro and some salsa from the salsa bar.

We sat on the tacqueria side, at a little bar that runs the length of the grill area. There were some fine looking chickens on a side grill, which had been spatchcocked and were slowly being roasted.

And, we got Mexican Coke! No, not *that* kind, but Coca Cola that had been bottled in Mexico and imported into the U.S. What makes this so "speshul," you ask? Pull up a chair and let me tell you. This Coke is made with cane sugar, like the Coke of my youth...none of that nasty corn syrup business, but pure, honest, refined cane sugar! (ha!!)

Here's an article with a little insight to the practice of "importing" Coke...you can also get Coke with sugar and not corn syrup around Passover. For some reason, high fructose corn syrup doesn't seem to be kosher. And, this article seems to say that high fructose corn syrup is way bad for you...just like everything else that tastes good.

We also tried another place last week. I got the Carne Asada plate to sort of compare the difference between it and what was offered at my favorite local family chain restaurant. It came with a generous helping of meat, some sort of nondescript scoop of rice and some pinto-ish beans. The beans had defnitely been cooked with lard, and it gave them a weird flavor. Not that I'm knocking the pork fat, but these beans were just blah. I know--whodathunkit? The carne asada was good, but the best part was the tortillas, which were made to order with my meal. Not just heated up for my meal, but actually pressed and cooked. These, my dears, were awesome. I'm usually not a big corn tortilla fan--probably based on all those years of consuming Old El Paso products.

This weekend, we went back to the first taqueria and had tacos for lunch. There were a couple of families and other folks who had big steaming bowls of a red soup that looked and smell scrumptious. I was dying to know what it was, and when I looked at the menu, it noted that the regular weekend specials were menudo and borrego. I know what menudo is--tripe soup with hominy, and I'm kind of up for trying it, but that big bowl is sort of daunting for a beginner.

I had The Man google up what borrego meant, and it means barbecued lamb, which piqued The Man's interest, but we stuck with the tacos. We're trying to be better on portion control and calorie counting, and I know I could have eat 6 of the tacos we had without blinking, because they were so good. I am going to work up the culinary courage to try the menudo soon, and I'll let you know how it goes. I'll learn the word for "smaller portion" and see if I can get a cup instead of a bowl.

There's a couple more places in town still left to try, and I'll let you know if we find anything truly noteworthy. So, if you have a little taqueria in your hometown, be brave and give it a whirl. Your tastebuds will thank you.


LinC said...

I'm a big believer that high fructose corn syrup is a Bad Thing and that eating at local establishments is a Good Thing. However, I'm still trying to work up my courage to eat at the taco wagon parked on Governor's Drive across from the Shell station. It must be good because it's become a permanent fixture (their own picnic table with a tent over it).

J said...

Those tacos sound like heaven!

Belinda said...

Speaking of HFCS, have you read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" yet? I say "yet," because if you haven't, you WILL. We are SO full of corn, molecularly speaking, it isn't even funny.

I'm so glad you stopped by my place tonight to remind me to come by HERE. I missed you! Actually, I miss everyone these days. I should work out some kind of rotating schedule for blog-visiting so as not to lose touch with all my friends.