Starting a small Tavern in rural Northern California. Barley and Hops Tavern catalogs the trials and tribulations of the restaurant biz, and teaching wine country to love beer.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Real Tacos

So it really was inevitable, as usual when you get your expectations high for something. Let me tell you something that will take you far as both an eater and a cooker.

Now listen up, because I'm only going to say this once, and there WILL be a test at the end, and it WILL be graded and go on your permanent record, which is, you, know, PERMANENT. Here it is. Right.... now:

Authentic food is best defined by what's not in it.
Not all good food is authentic.
Not all authentic food is good.
Food which claims to be authentic, but isn't, is never good.

See? That wasn't so hard. Now I understand that you find this cynical. It IS cynical because authentic food is HARD TO FIND even in places where it should be. It's cynical that most food is so inauthentic, that it's easier to define it by whatever does NOT have a bunch of crap in it that doesn't belong, but it's a fact, more and more.

Suburban sprawl, which is the only geographic setting that makes me want to assplode into a million pieces like the death star, is the main reason for this dumbing down. You know the area, the one where an entire shopping center is designed to look like a city center, but feels more like a b-movie set; vaguely reminiscent of the thing it mockingly imitates, but ultimately fails. It's filled with restaurants which serve food which is vaguely reminiscent of the thing it mockingly imitates, but ultimately fails. It is prepared, factory style, by cooks who aren't even vaguely reminiscent of chefs, and described on menus which are filled with indescribably insulting ethnic-ish phrases which ultimately mean nothing, or, at best, mean crappy bland food. Like "Loco Fajitas!" or "Super-Volcano Flingoes (R) with Chipotlaise (R)!"

Such travesties are typically followed by head-punchingly stupid descriptions which PRIDE themselves in their bastardizations of once recognizable food.

"First, we take our Ranchorita guacomolita and SMOTHER it on our godzilla tacos, THEN we deep fry it in..." you get the picture.

More accurately would be:

"First, we find a food that is inexpensive, technically edible, cheap, and lasts 10000 years on a shelf (liquid cheese product!), then add frozen, pre-portioned, identical meat of any variety, then pay people to reconstitute this travesty and pass it as food... with attitude!"

Bah. People would still eat it.

Now wait a second. You're thinking: "what about tex-mex, and other natural fusion?" This stuff is good, AND authentic. Corned beef and cabbage wouldn't exist without Irish immigrants and Jews living together in New York. New York pizza wouldn't exist, nor would a lot of things. This is good, it's authentic, it was built out of love for food, necessity, and using tradition combined with what was available locally. This is my favorite sort of food. This is not what I'm talking about.

So anyway, dad and I drove from Vista (Southern CA) to Nashville, and ate a lot of chicken tacos along the way. I was hoping to find Authentic tacos but would settle for good ones. First, let me demonstrate my prior statement, about authenticity being defined as what is NOT present. An authentic taco does not have any of the following:

1. Yellow Cheese
2. Crunchy shells (this actually exists in parts of Mexico, but is still sort of chewy, not the rock hard factory shells you get at taco-hut)
3. Ground beef.
4. Sour cream
5. Anything canned

So, with many regional variations, we're talking a double corn tortilla, usually some raw onion, grilled or stewed meat, lime, cilantro, occasionally cumin, pepper. Extra authenticity points for queso fresco, sliced radishes and lime wedges, and may or may not have salsa or pico as a garnish.

Not one. You can get 'em in LA, San Jose, and taco trucks in Oakland, and lots of areas, but in Vista, which is nothing but suburban sprawl, I didn't get one.

They did have good ones at one place. Not authentic (not by a mile) but made with love.

Another good regional variation, and the best on the trip, was in New Mexico. This is real fusion - using traditional methods with local ingredients. The tortillas were hand made, the salsa was exceptionally well made, the chicken flavorful and seasoned tex-mex, but not over the top, and not out of those F(*@#$ing @#$@##$@ damned, Son of a @#$ Pelican@#$@#$ popsicle@#$@#$@#%* ing stup3@#$ @#$ shakers of pre-made rub. (I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really hate these dimes worth of nearly flat spice mixtures. Don't do it, it's inauthentic, and not good. If you buy anything labeled "taco seasoning" you're an idiot. Yes YOU. An idiot. I can't believe you are even capable of reading this. A smarter person must be translating it for you. It's about as authentic as cooking noodles, and dumping on powdered "spaghetti seasoning". BAD.

So look for the real thing, and if you can't find the real thing, look for something made LIKE the real thing, but with local ingredients. My nana (mexican step grandmother) uses longhorn cheese because she likes it, and prepares it like they've done for hundreds of years. What? Everything. She loves the stuff. It's a good enough cheese, even though I probably prefer fresco or blanco, but it isn't out of a can, and it's made with love. Stay away from the chains in the suburban sprawl. They don't care about their food, they care about your money.

And that's a fact.