Part One – A Timpanist learns about tacos & such.
Five years before starting work in Mexico City, I was in a Military Band which concertized in all fifty states over two years. Before we began our first Western states tour, someone at work mentioned how he was looking forward to finding more authentic Mexican food once we got there. I’d overheard that remark and mentally filed it away for the trip. (Coincidentally, we began this seven week tour in Utah, where I’d end up settling down twelve years later.)
Lo and behold: right across the street from our Salt Lake hotel was a Taco Bell. I’d never been before and was thrilled! I trotted in and studied their menu, then ordered an item I’d never before seen. It was a “soft shell taco” wrapped in a white, flour tortilla. The innards of this alluring dish were exactly the same as a yellow crunchy taco – ground beef, lettuce, cheese, sour cream and tomato – but I barely noticed. I ordered two and munched away while basking in all this authenticity.
I guess I didn’t learn much about the cuisine from all that Western touring because five years later when I knew I’d soon be working in Mexico City, I started training my taste buds for the trip by returning to Taco Bell to try their other offerings. To my credit, much of it tasted pretty strange, but I soldiered on thinking I was doing important culinary prep work.
Weeks later, the Gringos recruited down to Mexico for the orchestra were put up at a hotel near the center of town in a constantly busy barrio that offered up an endless barrage of new sensations. Amidst all this urban, exotic din sat a bustling little taqueria. So one evening, I wandered in, excited to sample their offerings. THIS, I thought, was where all that palette training would finally pay off!
The first thing that hit me upon entering was the thick, intoxicating aroma of smoky grilled meats. (“Hmmm: Nice! Taco Bell didn’t PREPARE me for this!!”) One ordered at the front counter from the menu up on the wall, then moved past cooks grilling – or roasting on a spit – a plethora of meats before paying at the far end of the counter. But I was stuck over at the beginning, hanging back to let the locals go in front of me while being dumbstruck with the unfamiliar words up on the big board. (All these menu items: there’s at least a dozen of them! Are they ALL tacos?)
I was SO NOT prepared for this: Alambre, Pastor, Suadero, Chuleta, Costilla, Carnitas, Chorizo, Cacheta. Even in Spanish class, I’d never seen nor heard these words. There was one item I could figure out though, and it sounded good to me: BISTEC. (“Sounds like BEEFSTEAK. Hey, I like beefsteak. We have a winner.”)
It was very tender & tasty, too. But it was served on a plate spooned out over three soft, flat, corn tortillas which was new to me. Then I noticed there was no ground beef anywhere. Plus, these meats are often the ONLY thing served over the tortillas. On some kinds, they’d ask you if you wanted diced onions & cilantro, but no cheese, lettuce, sour cream or tomatoes. (“What’s with THAT? But… oh LOOK!”) There were three little bowls of garnishes at everyones’ tables – a red sauce, a green and a bowl with a unique smelling assortment of diced onions, tomatoes, chilies and some green herb. That aroma was still odd to me back then, so I turned to the red sauce, spooned a little over the meat and took a bite. “HOLY CRAP, MY TOUNGE IS MELTING!” I was also sweating like a hog but strangely: my sinuses had cleared up, too.
Just like the rest of my first Summer in Mexico City, my first trip to a taqueria bowled me over with a symphony of new tastes, smells, sights & sounds. But with each successive bite, this place was winning me over (besides, my tongue was numb). By the time I walked out, however, I knew I’d return: SOON!
And I did, but I knew I’d soon get bored with just beefsteak, and was determined to try something new. Then, while standing in front of that big menu the next time, an intoxicating new aroma hit me: the smell of sliced steak, onions and green peppers cooking up together. I asked the guy behind the aromatic mixture what it was and he said, “Alambre.” So, I proudly proclaimed, “Alambre, por favor,” in my Gringo accent.
The taste was JUST as intoxicating as the smell, and the corn flavor of the tortilla TOTALLY worked with the other components. I was hooked!! I had discovered a new favorite taco, and to this day, it remains one of my “top fives.”
But more importantly, I felt like I was slowly gaining mastery over eating at a Mexican taqueria. Over time, I began trying these other taco choices, as well as their many & varied sauces and garnishes (located at a separate counter I’d originally missed). And the Mexican Taco is now one of my favorite foods from… ANYwhere.
In future installments (there will have to be several) I’ll delve more deeply into this delicious and diverse subject, for there is MUCH left to discuss, beyond just my anecdotes. Stay tuned….