Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Department of Culinary Suspicion

The New York Times reports there is an authentic taquería in Paris. The only one. It's called Candelaria and serves spicy tacos, whether the French like it hot or not. However, the lines at the door are of many Americans who miss their tacos. This makes me highly suspicious, because most Americans have a distorted idea of tacos.
A woman quoted in the article says that Candelaria's tacos are not as good as Mission (San Francisco's) tacos. And I say that Mission tacos are not as good as real Mexican tacos. I know all of you Californians (and some Texans) want to challenge me to a duel right now. What can I say? Bring it.
Your tacos may be very tasty but I always find something off with them. Too big and fat, not the right tortilla, bad accoutrements (cabbage, too much lettuce, sour cream, radishes), etc.
To their credit, at Candelaria they make the tortillas in-house. The reporter says that they were too spicy, which is also a no-no. The optional salsas can be as spicy as hell, (although they should not all set your tongue on fire) but the taco fillings shouldn't be.
I once ate at a Mexican restaurant in Paris that was owned by a guy from Oaxaca. In order to get the French to come in, he had to take any evidence of spice out of the food. The food was like a consumptive cousin of the real thing. It reminded me of Proust, swaddled in bed, afraid to go outside and breathe. It wasn't bad but it wasn't good. It was bland and it tasted off-Mexican. It was a bit sad.
In countries where corn is not a staple, it's hard to make Mexican food work. The tortilla is key, and outside of Mexico tortillas usually suck. Then there are the misreadings: too much spice or not enough and lack of balance and subtlety.  In New York, things have improved greatly since the arrival of many Mexican workers to the city's restaurant kitchens.  Now taquerías are ubiquitous. Frankly, I am afraid to try them, as I find that restaurant owners still don't quite understand the taco concept.
A short taco primer: everything needs to be served hot temperature-wise. The tortilla and the filling need to be hot. Not the filling hot and the tortilla frigid, like in Chipotle, or viceversa. In Mexico, most taco fillings are cooked fresh on the spot. So if you get a taco de bistec, or any other taco a la parrilla, the meat hasn't been sitting in a container since the morning. It gets put on the grill and cooked right then and there. If they are tacos de guisado, the stews are made beforehand but somehow they do not taste like they have been congealing there all day. Most taquerías served grilled meats and pastor (pork on a spit), but here the fillings tend to be stews, even when it's meat. It's always disappointing. So concentrate on the contents and stop the obsession with the shit that goes on top, which in Mexico is chopped onions and cilantro. Provide some juicy limes instead. Also, be generous! Don't make me look for the optional sauces with a microscope. Don't give me a tiny plastic thimble of sauce and an eighth of a dessicated lime. This is where you really don't get it.
I always get asked where do I go for Mexican food in NY. My answer is usually "to Mexico City". But there are a couple of places that I like. Hecho en Dumbo, in the Bowery is top of my list. Great appetizers, very good carnitas, quite authentic. And they make an addictive tamarind margarita. The tacos de cochinita and the sopa de tortilla at La Esquina are also good. La Superior in Williamsburg is fine. In the case of taquerías, I resent to have to pay so much. The prices of tacos have not translated very well to the NY economy, I'm afraid. I have not tried some newer places, for fear of bitter disappointment. But I might.
Which brings me to tell you, however, that I found the best enchiladas verdes I've eaten outside of Mexico right in my neighborhood. They are so good that if I ate them in Mexico, I'd be very impressed. The green tomatillo sauce is fresh and perfectly balanced with a spicy kick, and the chicken is not dried out left overs but is stewed as they do in Mexico, so there is a delicious reddish ooze coming out of the green. As the tortillas are smothered in the excellent sauce, they don't call too much attention to themselves and they taste fine. And although the cabbage garnish is not quite right, the dish is absolutely delicious. According to a waitress, the cooks made the enchiladas for themselves and the chef wisely decided to put them on the menu. Now I can't live without them. They are served at Burger and Barrel in West Houston St.


  1. I need to go to NY again... if only for the enchiladas verdes (though meeting you would be definitely fun).

    I have to say - I had refused for years to go to Chipotle (I had it in my mind that they were owned by McDonald's, which is not true anymore, and they're trying to "improve") and I was pleasently surprised. No, it's not Mexican, of course, but they actually warmed the tortilla (and it wasn't the typical half-cooked American flour tortilla) and their cilantro/lime/rice was delicious! I will certainly be going back!

    If only they had horchata...

  2. I think that one should trust no one when it comes to Mexican food (I don't even trust Mexican-Americans like myself) and trust not, by any means, when it comes to tacos. Who is out there giving oversized, sour creamed tacos props in the name of my beloved hometown? Sour cream sucks.The best taco places all creep out after 7pm at odd corners, and long have before the food truck trend/craze, many of which use fresh masa and keep the condiments off the tacos, and to a minimum (onion, cilantro, limes, and a couple salsas). Please allow me to advise if you are ever in my fair hometown. p.s. But yes, nothing is as good as tacos or Mexican food, in Mexico- I have never met a torta like the ones I grew up with, with freshly grilled beef and serrano chile-laden avocado salsa in the non-touristy parts of Ensenada where relatives live. not even in Mexico City! !!!

  3. And- why is good horchata hard to come by anywhere? Why so much sugar? Why powdered cinnamon, and not lovely cinammon sticks blended with the soaked grains of rice? And god forbid both of the above, plus a watery, translucent light brown from cinammon wrong, so wrong horchata. no more comments, I am in a Mexican food desert in Connecticut.