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Taking Stock at Foodstock

As an alumna of Wesleyan University, I knew I was back on campus when I passed a stop sign bearing stickers with the words “don’t” and “believing” framing the word “stop.” Some things never change. Some things, however, change a lot. One of these is the sheer number of self-professed “foodies” that walk those hallowed halls and tree-lined pathways. The school paper, which I edited back in the day, now boasts a food section. A student-organized farmers’ market sets up shop a couple on campus times a month. There’s a program house dedicated to cooking, known as “Full House.” Even the campus catering is done by Bon Appétit Management, known for its local, sustainable sourcing of ingredients. It’s not that I’m shocked by this transition—there was a student protest while I was at Wesleyan to get the on-campus grocery store to stop selling eggs laid by caged chickens—but it is a reminder of how quickly food awareness has sprung up in the American consciousness. Some of these Wesleyan foodies (members of the class of ’12, ’13 and ’14, if you can believe we’re that old) organized a conference on food writing called Foodstock, at which I—along with others more accomplished and more luminary—was asked to speak.

The morning was occupied by two conversations led by the Connecticut Public Radio cooking-show host, Faith Middleton. The first was with former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor, Ruth Reichl, and the second was with New York Times wine critic (and Wesleyan grad) Eric Asimov. The afternoon schedule would be packed with more notable names, including Raymond Sokolov, Dorie Greenspan, Jane Stern and Molly O’Neill. But first, it was time for lunch. Talking about food is all well and good, but what kind of food conference would be complete without a feast to gorge on? Lucky, the smarty-pants Wesleyan students who planned Foodstock were on top of their game in this department as well. They recruited a small fleet of food trucks to come to Middletown and park in a lot near the science center. Naturally, I had to scout out the full range of options before deciding what to eat. I passed on Ethiopian, grilled cheese and a pizza truck with an internal oven and opted for three tacos from Hartford-based Lucky Taco.

I tried one filled with carnitas, one with chicken and one with beef. It didn’t take me long to realize that the carnitas is where it’s at. The meat was tender and porky, and the cabbage slaw in the taco added crunch and moisture. I dumped the entirety of my salsa verde cup on top and chowed down. The other two tacos were far less remarkable. The chicken was bland and uninteresting, and the ground beef cried out for seasoning and textural character. Both of these tacos also came with fresh tomatoes on top, which are simply a watery disappointment until tomato season starts in earnest. The remaining two cups of salsa were also tomato based, and they lacked the kick of smokiness or spice I was craving. I sat down on a curb in the parking lot—between Eric Asimov and some undergraduates—to eat them. Ah, the democracy of food carts!

As I sat there eating my less-than-stellar tacos, I overheard numerous passersby raving about the Lebanese fish wrap from the Munchies Food Truck. I felt a pang of orderer’s regret. Then I stopped myself. Why worry about having missed out on the sandwich when I could buy it and eat it for second lunch? I did just that, although I didn’t end up eating it until later. The battered, fried flounder was tender and moist and evocative of the Northeast region, while also bringing in a kick of the Middle East with tahini sauce and a crunchy salad. The pita was that thin pliant variety that really holds a sandwich together well. This may well have been the best item available at the food trucks assembled in that parking lot, but what struck me the most about these food offerings was the sheer variety at that level of quality. These carts were reflective of what college students wanted and found delicious. Even the little gourmet on-campus market and the vegan cafe of my undergraduate days did not rise to this level of sophistication. Would my classmates and I have thought to plan a conference based purely on the enjoyment of food? Probably not. But, in the age of the foodie, it seems, we are all more conscious of what we eat and how we document its every detail.

Tacos Take Two: Top-Secret Edition

We all know that, despite the complexity and creativity restaurants offer our palates, there is sometimes nothing better than home-cooked food. Many chefs strive to recreate this homey quality with comfort-food menus and dishes prepared like mama would have made them. But what if, instead of the restaurant becoming the home, the home becomes became the restaurant? That is what has happened at Taqueria Juquilita, a world-class taqueria run by a Oaxacan couple (with assistance from their English-speaking son) out of a tiny second-floor apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. That’s where my dear friend Honey Roasted Peanut lives. I was lucky enough to be in town visiting her last weekend when she got the idea to give Juquilita a try. My friend Po’boy, who also happened to be visiting from New York that weekend, joined us. HR Peanut had been searching for good tacos in her neighborhood and came across a glowing Yelp entry for a place that appeared to be just one street away. But if she hadn’t read that review, she never would have known it was there.

Taqueria Juquilita has been run for 10 years out of the same eat-in kitchen of an apartment in a dingy high-rise. It started even more informally as a way to serve friends and family the comfort foods of home. Visitors would call up to the apartment and the son who serves as host, waiter, translator, etc., would throw the keys on a lanyard out of the window and down to the person on the street. As tends to happen when phenomenal food is being sold and served on a mostly regular basis in a semi-public way, word of the restaurant fell into the hands of a less-than-trustworthy source who proceeded to post the address and phone number on Yelp for all the desperate foodies of the world to see. As irksome as it might have been for our host and his parents to have their details published and to deal with the inevitable wave of gringos, I am glad that Yelp review was created. We stood outside the tall brick building and nervously called upstairs. (I promised them I would not divulge their location or contact info here.) Moments later the keys were flying down to us, and we were taking the rickety elevator to the second floor. Inside the apartment, there was a long rectangular table ringed by metal folding chairs. On it were pots of salsa, including pico de gallo and a fiery habañero, guacamole, lime wedges and radish slices. There was also a relish made of lightly pickled red onions and habañero slices.

Some among us had been out until the wee hours and were embarking on this, our first meal of the day, with some degree of a hangover. I scanned the taco menu, which included cabeza de res (cow’s head), cabeza de puerco (pig’s head), cesina con nopales (beef strips with cactus), sesos de res (beef brains), lengua (tongue) and carnitas (fried pork), and determined that we would need one of each. Po’boy and HR Peanut readily agreed to share. Not only were these tacos beautiful to look at when they arrived at the table, but they turned out to be some of the tastiest I’ve tried. All the meat was well-spiced. My favorites were the falling-apart-tender cabeza de res, the surprisingly meaty beef brains and the meltingly fatty cubes of carnitas. There weren’t any major duds, although we were all slightly less inclined to the pig brains, which had a notably gelatinous texture.

We topped these with the salsas—HR Peanut wisely avoiding the habañero options as Po’boy and I proceeded to light our mouths and lips aflame. Tall cinnamon-spiced glasses of horchata, made excellent salves for our battle-scared tongues. In addition to the tacos, we ordered a quesadilla filled with flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) and a light mild cheese. Huitlacoche is also available as a quesadilla stuffing, but the squash blossoms came more highly recommended by our host. These were mild but slightly crunchy, which made for a unique textural contrast. Despite its unique filling, this was the least interesting item we tried. The tostada topped with chicken tinga may well have been a better bet.

After we had ordered, a group of about five people, some of whom were seasoned Juquilita veterans, came and sat at the other end of the table. They ordered the goat stew and some of the other dishes we didn’t have room to try. I heard the guy sitting next to me ask our host if they had chapulines that day. Lest we finish off this fabulous meal in an uninteresting way, our host informed us that there were indeed chapulines—tiny fried Mexican grasshoppers, served in a tortilla with cilantro and onion. Po’boy and I knew we had to try these, but HR Peanut was squeamish. When they arrived, she bravely took a small bite. I ate an entire tacos worth of the tiny little buggers. They were cured in the traditional way with garlic, lime juice and salt. But I found them a little too salty and limey. They would have been better served as a crunchy accompaniment to one of the softer meats. Still, these were vibrant flavors made from recipes and ingredients that were nothing if not authentic. The tacos at Juquilita were some of the best I’ve had in the U.S., an appropriate accolade for a restaurant in our nation’s capital and a fitting reminder that the best food is still cooked at home.

Taqueria Juquilita
Second Floor Apt.
b/n 14th St. and 16th St.
Columbia Heights
Washington, D.C.

The Name Sets the Bar at Ricos Tacos

When I looked up the restaurant listing on New York Magazine’s website for Piaxtla Es México Deli Ricos Tacos y Antojitos (commonly known as Ricos Tacos), the site listed the restaurant as Rico’s Tacos, as if Rico were a guy who had opened up this hole-in-the-wall taqueria in the heavily Mexican, Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. But there shouldn’t be an apostrophe in the restaurant’s name; “ricos,” in this case, is an adjective referring to the tacos, and it means delicious. It is a name that sets a high bar, and I wanted to see if the food measured up. My friend Fry Girl, who has spent some time in Mexico, gamely agreed to come along and to drive me to the restaurant in her car.

The inside of the restaurant has all the charm of a dingy diner, with faded orange formica booths, a high counter displaying prepared foods, a glass-doored fridge filled with Mexican sodas and a small jukebox on the wall. Much like it was during my visit to Tulcingo Deli VI, also in Sunset Park, we were the only gringos in the place. We sat at a booth in the corner and proceeded to order a veritable feast’s worth of food. It was a cold night, so soup sounded like a good first course. There was pozole, the traditional Mexican soup made with pork and hominy, and there was menudo, another traditional soup made with tripe in a chili-based broth. They were both cheap, so why not order one of each? The pozole wasn’t the best example of this soup I’ve tried; it could probably have used more seasoning. But it was rich and thick with a creamy consistency that comes from the blend of stewed hominy and fat. In other words: pretty satisfying. The menudo was tasty too, replete with big chunks of tripe that melted in the warm, spicy broth. Fry Girl isn’t a big fan of tripe so it was up to me to tackle most of this one. Luckily I didn’t finish it because there was a ton of food still to come. I washed the spiciness down with a sip of the restaurant’s sweet horchata (cinnamon rice milk).

Next came the tostadas. Thinking these would be as small as their $3 price tag, we ordered three of them in addition to three tacos, which were also $3 each. Notable among these were the tostada de tinga–a crispy corn tortilla topped with a sweet-spicy combination of shredded chicken blended with salsa, vinegar and white onion, and the tostada de enchilada—a spicy combination of shredded meat coated with tomato and chili sauce. The latter was tender and complex, our favorite dish of the evening. All came topped with lettuce, cilantro and crumbly cotija cheese. The al pastor was best of the three tacos we tried, although even that was not up to the standards of Tulcingo Deli (let alone my beloved Erick’s Tacos in Chicago). I found it a little sweet and not nearly as nuanced as other preparations I’ve tried. The beef taco was a bit dry and bland, and the chorizo was unimpressive. The restaurant’s tasty salsas, including a spicy salsa verde, a smoky salsa rojo and an avocado sauce, made the less worthy tacos more lively. Of course, it’s possible that the reason we started losing interest had more to do with having eaten far too much than with the fact that the food could have been better. Most likely, it was a little bit of both.

So did these tacos live up to their name? They were tasty enough, but even in Brooklyn, I’ve eaten tacos more ricos than these.

Piaxtla es México Deli Ricos Tacos y Antojitos Mexicanos
505 51st St.
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Piaxtla Es Mexico Deli on Urbanspoon

The Dream of Great Tacos is Alive in NYC at Tulcingo VI

I will admit it: I was wrong. More than once, I have ranted about the lack of authentic regional Mexican food in New York. In a city where Spanish is primarily spoken by Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, it’s no surprise. But having lived across the street from an awesome taqueria in Chicago and having done most of our shopping at a well-stocked Mexican grocery store there, I was spoiled. I was also annoyed by the assertions of fellow New Yorkers that the generic gringo-infused Mexican restaurants of Manhattan and Brooklyn were “really good.” But as it turns out, I had simply not been looking in the right place for my tacos, tortas and platillos de carne asada. It was all right under my nose in my latest food neighborhood of choice: Sunset Park.

To be fair, I had known about the Mexican restaurants in Sunset Park for quite some time, but I had never made the move to try them. The New York Times, and a number of people I spoke with talked up Tacos Matamoros, but Empanada Boy tried it and was disappointed. If that was the best Sunset Park had to offer, I feared my standards would never be met. But EB and I decided to try our luck again last weekend. I found a informative article from Serious Eats about a taco crawl on Sunset Park’s 5th Ave. Two spots stood out to me. One ended up being closed when we got there, so we headed to the other: Tulcingo Deli VI. The name itself held promise, and when we walked into the nearly full restaurant and saw we were the only gringos, thing started looking even better. After we were seated at one of the empty tables, the waitress came over to take our order. Every non-native Spanish speaker knows about that awkward moment where you wonder whether the server will be annoyed at you speaking Spanish. Our waitress jumped right over that hurdle by immediately launching into Spanish. Gringos though we might be, we were speaking Spanish that night.

While we waited for our food, we sipped our beers andchowed down on the excellent chips and slightly sweet chunky salsa. We were later brought two other kinds of thin spicier salsa– one made with smoky red peppers and other made with chiles verdes. Both were nuanced and delicious, boding well for the tacos to come. All of a sudden, a group of mariachi musicians clad in white suits studded with silver fastenings stood up and started to sing and play at the front of the restaurant. I am not always a huge fan of mariachi music, but something about the way the band enlivened and excited everyone else in the restaurant (singing and clapping) caused the music to have a similar effect on me.

Just as the female singer launched into a Spanish-accented rendition of “Happy Birthday” (‘appy berthday to jou), our tacos arrived. I had really wanted to try the goat meat barbacoa taco, but they were out, so I ordered chorizo, suadero (wasn’t sure what it was, but was up for adventure) and al pastor. EB ordered al pastor, oreja (ear!) and lengua (tongue). These were big tacos, more sizable than the ones I typically ate in Chicago, wrapped in two layers of fresh corn tortillas. They were brimming with meat and topped with chopped white onions, cilantro and creamy guacamole. The chorizo was chunky, but nicely crisped and infused with chile, garlic, paprika and cumin. After that, the suadero, which turns out to be the soft, smooth breast muscle of a cow, was a little bland, but it did have a slightly gamey, livery flavor, which made it more interesting. When I got to al pastor, I was already feeling pretty full, but this taco brought the flavor back swinging with soft strings of well-spiced pork. I doused mine alternately with the red and green salsa, unable to decide which I preferred. EB’s oreja was tasty, if a bit cartiladgy. I preferred the lengua, which was tender and juicy. The guacamole on top of each taco added a nice touch of cooling lubrication to the mounds of spiced meat. I was in taco heaven!

After we finished eating, the mariachi band, which had been working its way around the room asking for requests in exchange for cash, came to stop at our table. EB sheepishly requested “Guantanamera,” and the band obliged with a particularly rousing version. When they asked for another song, we realized that was about the extent of our Mexican song library. That didn’t stop them; they played the Stevie Wonder song “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” which worked surprisingly well with the mariachi instrumentation. Everyone sang along. We walked out of the restaurant feeling like we had made some friends and found the authentic Mexico flavors we had been missing for so long.

Tulcingo Deli VI
5520 5th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11220

Tulcingo Deli Vi on Urbanspoon

Sopapillas in Santa Fe and Albuquerque Cont.

At long last, faithful reader, I am back to recount the rest of my trip to Albuquerque:

I was still feeling pretty full when I woke up on the morning of my second full day in New Mexico, but I am nothing if not professional when it comes to upholding my solemnly sworn duty to keep eating. Lini and I went light on breakfast, knowing we were heading out to Santa Fe where we would undoubtedly be eating a big lunch. But before leaving town we went with Torte on a specially arranged tour of The Storehouse, a unique food pantry in Albuquerque.

Torte works for the New Mexico Collaboration to End Hunger, a nonprofit group that coordinates resources and operations among the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens. The Storehouse’s food sourcing and receiving manager met us when we arrived and took us through the aisles of the supermarket-like food pantry where those in need are able to stock up with their family’s allotment of items like rice, beans, bread, milk, fresh fruit and even clothing at no charge once a month. The place was very well run, especially considering the limited resources it has and the depth of Albuquerque’s hunger problem. As someone who writes about the pleasures of eating, it’s good to remember that food is what keeps us alive and many are struggling with just that.

After that sobering, but inspiring, start to the day, Lini and I got into her car and drove to Santa Fe. We planned to visit the Museum of International Folk Art, whose displays of dolls and figurines we had both loved as kids, but first it was time for lunch. Lini had consulted with a friend from Santa Fe about a good restaurant that would serve sopapillas, chewy hollow pockets of fried dough that are quintessentially New Mexican. The recommendation was La Choza, which means “the shed” in Spanish. (The restaurant has a more touristy sibling called The Shed in another location in the city.)

Let me first say that the sopapillas were delicious. I drizzled some honey into the interior of mine and ate it as a sweet, fried side dish to my meal. To go with that, I ordered a combination plate, including a chile relleno and carne adovada, chunks of pork, slow roasted in a marinade of red chile, garlic and oregano. On the side were pinto beans and posole. I asked for extra sides of red and green chile, known as “Christmas” to douse my food. (I could swim in the stuff!) Lini ordered the tacos (see above), three hard shells (haven’t eaten one of those for a decade or so) filled with cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, ground beef marinated in red chile and salsa. This is the food of my childhood!

I’m going to skip ahead to the final day of my trip, only glossing over a tasty dinner of pupusas at a character-filled pupuseria once we got back to Albuquerque. It was good food, but Salvadoran, a cuisine I can much more easily obtain in New York than green chile and sopapillas. But on Sunday before I headed out to the airport, Torte and Lini arranged an outing with their uncles and some friends to Pro’s Ranch Market, a Mexican and New Mexican food emporium with endless isles of specialty groceries, awesome meat and cheese counters and a full service food court, complete with a fresh juice bar and a tortilla making station.

We all ordered different items from the various stations. One of Lini and Torte’s uncles got the beautiful coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail) pictured above with some housemade chips to go along side it. Lini got an impressive Cuban sandwich. I opted for three tacos—carnitas, buche (butt) and carne asada— served in fresh corn tortillas. These were delicious, but very different from the tacos I typically ate in Chicago or the few good ones I’ve found in New York. First of all, chorizo is usually more common than carnitas, and I had never tried buche. Even the carne asada tasted like it was seasoned differently than I was used to. It’s probably because the food at Pro’s is influenced by a different part of Mexico or even by New Mexican cuisine. I also ordered some hibiscus juice, which was interesting and far less sweet than I had expected based on its deep red color.

All there was time for after our visit to Pro’s was a quick trip to Costco to pick up frozen individually wrapped packets of green chile to bring home with me. I took a chance and left them in my suitcase when I went through security. The TSA agent manning the scanner asked what the 10 individually wrapped packages were. I said: “frozen green chile,” expecting her to say I would need to check them under the liquids and gels ban. Instead she said: “Well, take them out so I can see that’s what it is.” I did, and she let me go through without any hassle. Only in Albuquerque, I thought; only in Albuquerque.

La Choza
905 Alarid St.
Santa Fe, NM 87501

Pro’s Ranch Market
4201 Central Ave.
Albuquerque, NM 87105
(and various locations throughout the Southwest)

La Cocina (Pro's Ranch Market) on Urbanspoon

Taco, Oh How I Miss You

Tacos verticalThere are no taquerias to speak of in New York. By taquerias, I don’t mean taco restaurants dolled up with Dia de los Muertos decor and run by a hipster gringo chef. New York has its fair share of those. No, I’m talking about the authentic little holes-in-the-wall that used to be favored stomping grounds for Empanada Boy and me when we lived in Chicago. These did not have fancy decor. For the most part, they didn’t even have table service at all. What they did have was fresh corn tortillas, house-made chorizo, fresh horchata and marinated pork spinning on a spit for tacos al pastor. The flavors were authentic because there was no pretense to the operation. Mexican people were their primary customers, and there was no reason to be unconventional, only the best at evoking the flavors of home.

The dearth of truly authentic Mexican food (apart from the taco truck on 96th and Broadway and the places that undoubtedly exist in the far reaches of the outer boroughs) is obviously a result of the relatively small Mexican population in this city. New York’s Latino population is mostly comprised of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Los Angeles and Chicago, on the other hand, have the first and second most Mexican-born residents of any city in the U.S., respectively. As it turns out, Madison, WI, is also home to a large Mexican population, and the culinary offerings there reflect that.

On a recent visit to Madison, EB and I were reminded how much we missed being able to walk across the street for fabulous tacos. We went to Taqueria Guadalajara with EB’s friend Hamentaschen. He has been wanting us to try this local hangout for a while, and we were excited to find out why he was so into it.

SalsaOf course, we all ordered tacos, but I could tell I was going to like the place when I tasted their salsas. There were two different varieties, a salsa verde and another tomato-based one. Neither of them held back on the heat. This was obviously not a restaurant that catered to gringos, although there were a number of us there.

The tacos were delicious. I tried one made with carne al pastor, which was moist and spicy with a touch of sweetness to counteract it. I also tasted a taco de lengua, made with tender beef tongue and a chorizo taco. The latter was flavorful but didn’t quite have the crispy texture achieved by EB’s favorite chorizo chef at Erick’s Tacos in Chicago. EB ordered the tripe, which had a chewy center and a crispy exterior, making it better than the completely fried tripe we’d tasted.

Tacos horizontalEverything was fresh and vibrant. Hamentaschen, EB and I happily chowed down, devouring everything on our plates. These were the flavors we had been missing!

Until we can get back to Chicago or Madison, or the West Coast, or any place where more Mexicans live, EB make do as best we can. We grill skirt steak on our stove top griddle and heat store-bought corn tortillas on the meat-juice-coated surface. We grill onions and eat our tacos with some of EB’s homemade salsa made with tomatillos and guajillo and chipotle peppers. We never go out for Mexican food— it’s just too disappointing. We may be a couple of gringos, but after you’ve tried an authentic taqueria, there’s no going back.

Taqueria Guadalajara
1033 South Park St
Madison, WI 53715

Taqueria Guadalajara on Urbanspoon