Traversing the Taco Belt
Tex Mex at the Source
If corn is the essence of the Mexican soul and tortillas are the essence of corn, then tacos, which, in most of Mexico are corn tortillas filled with something good, bring that soul down to earth and give it life. Tacos are quintessentially Mexican.
That’s why I was skeptical when I began an investigative journey, sponsored by Chowzter/Foodiehub, through the “Taco Belt”, the border area of the United States inhabited by many Mexican Americans: Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The idea was to find the best tacos and compare them to those across the border in Mexico--to determine if “Tex-Mex” really exists. Despite my prejudice against “adapted” and “fused” cuisines, I was determined to keep an open mind, and let the food speak for itself.
José R. Ralat, Dallas resident, journalist and curator of www.thetacotrail.com, explains that “The difference is in the ingredients, which differ from Oaxaca to Sonora to Texas and the American Southwest. But as populations shift and consumer demand for familiar foods opens new markets the line between the tacos of Mexico and former Mexico will likely blur.” I wanted to see if this is happening now.
Tacos are a concept as wide open to interpretation as the term ‘sandwich’. The three essential elements of the taco are the tortilla, the salsa and the filling. The quality of all three must be high for the taco to be successful. (The Americanized hard shell version found at places like Taco Bell doesn't exist in Mexico.)
I started off in Houston at a produce market called Canino, where several food trucks awaited hungry shoppers. Everything Mexican is sold here, from fresh avocados and papayas to mole pastes and cazuelas: this is the real thing. Trucks seem to be the preferred venue for entrepreneurial fast food in Texas, where open stalls and carts are prohibited by government and climate.
The tacos I sampled at Doña Leticia were acceptable but not outstanding. Fajitas here are chunks of sautéed beef piled on a warmed over corn tortilla. The meat was flavorful but plain, the factory made tortillas bland, and the salsa, served in a squeeze bottle, without kick or complexity. This experience was repeated at neighboring trucks and others I visited around town. Corn tortillas tended to be mealy and tasteless, the salsas were perfunctory concoctions, intended to add spice but nothing more - no roasted tomatoes or chilies in their infinite variety. All the proprietors seemed to be immigrants from the southern state of Veracruz--but making northern style tacos, not their own. I left disappointed.
I was more impressed with Fusion Tacos, where slices of juicy seared duck breast on a bed of ginger-perfumed Napa cabbage were served on a house-made wheat tortilla--these tacos hit all the marks. And their spicy lamb keema would satisfy any Delhi resident. But though fine, these fusion tacos were trained chef inventions. I hadn’t yet found anything rooted in local tradition. Not until I arrived in Austin.
Austin is home to many who are proudly Tex-Mex, and the celebrated South by Southwest cultural festival was in full swing when I arrived. While there are a profusion of restaurants of every nationality, Texas BBQ, an amazing phenomenon I sampled on several occasions, stands out as the area’s gastronomic must-do.
At Valentina's, an oven is attached to the truck, wood piled nearby at the ready and the meats are hickory-smoked. Salsas are house made, the thick meaty flour tortillas hand formed – all right in the truck. Vidal traces his family back five generations to San Antonio - there is no one in Mexico itself. He explained that the idea of combining local traditions was nothing new to him. "We ate that way at family gatherings as long as I could remember.” The only thing he’s done is to take it a step further – or is it backward?--and pay more attention to quality. So a brisket taco is a beautifully chewy tortilla filled with smoky, buttery meat, the salsa tangy, but not so much as to vie for attention. Bits of sweet corn thrown in the smoker add bursts of nutty sweetness. This is fusion at its best, arising out of two heartfelt traditions. Bravo.
Recent and Relevant posts:
Casquivana (Chiapas 173, Roma) is a fine new bar/restaurant specializing in regional tacos. www.casquivana.mx
Who doesn't like dumplings? Buns & Dumplings, Mercado Carmen, Amargura 5, San Angel is Chef Luís Chiu's (of Asian Bay fame) new venture. It's a stand in the back of the promising new Mercado Carmen. "Buns" i.e. steamed open bread filled with slow cooked pork belly or succulent duck breast hit all the marks as do the steamed dumplings and won tons. This is no fusion-confusion, it's the real thing.
Umami BBQ D.F.'s most eccentric chef, Quim Jardí, formerly of La Rauxa, is back doing banh mi, craft burgers and what he promises to be the best pizzas in DF. Visit his Umami BBQ at Sonora 86 in Roma/Condesa. Oh, and there are bbq ribs too.
Olivier Dekeyser is a pâtissier divine. He does Belgian style cakes and pastries to order for any occasion; see his site: http://elpostrebelga.mx/
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