Taco Talk

blog by Robyn Wyman-dill

Some weeks seem to shine the light on our world mess better than others. Not because the special interests, religions and ideologies in the world are any more hell bent on multiplying their ranks – by dividing and conquering – than usual.  It’s more a feeling I get that intelligent signs of life have exited the building. Leaving behind no forwarding address. Which makes me hunger for the biggest common denominator and ultimate peacemaker – comfort food. According to psychological studies -this may be consumed for the purpose of positively piquing emotions. Replacing negative vibes with positive feelings.

Let’s face it, food knows how to cross the mood lines and stay in your good graces forever.  Look at all the fuss being made over legalizing immigration for undocumented Mexican workers in the US and the ‘Berlin Wall of America‘ that divides the landscape so severely and you will know we are not a very friendly neighbor. Yet Mexican food has been ‘in the kitchen with Dinah’ since the 40s, becoming quite a cuisine célèbre among gringos.

Seven regional cooking styles have crossed the border, unabashedly. Seven regional cooking styles that seem to habituate well to the culture of fine dining here.  And no one is complaining.

(The seven regional cooking styles are 1) Northern Mexican- known for its beef and flour tortillas, 2) Oaxacan – known for its chocolate and corn tortillas, 3) Yucatan – which came up with egg tacos with pumpkin seed gravy and Shawarma tacos,  4) Mexico City – where taco stands began in earnest, 5) Veracruz – with rice replacing corn, 6) Chiapas – known for its beef, pork, chicken and simojovel – a chili pepper used no else in the country and Western Mexico – which includes Baja cuisine and fish tacos.)

I’ve always liked the number seven.

Now tacos have been a comfort food and friend of mine since the 70s. But, looking back, I remember I was drawn to the shape of the hard shell instantly and enjoyed the challenge of trying to eat it with my hands without dropping anything.  Prior to eating my first authentic Mexican tacos, I had enjoyed a steady diet of an ordinary bread rolled called brötchen with a long frankfurter and lots of German mustard.  Tacos really turned the culinary tables. My mother soon added hard shell tacos to her grocery list.

Like me, a lot of Americans like tacos. They consume 4.5 billion of them annually. If you were to line them up – one behind the other – it equates to 490,000 miles of tacos. Which is the distance to the moon and back.(On average, the distance from Earth to the moon is about 238,855 miles or 384,400 km each way.) Maybe that’s why a harvest, half moon sometime looks like a giant taco. Beam me up, Scotty. I want to bite it.

Tacos are really truly the ‘street food’ of Mexico and are made at taquerias or taco stands throughout the country.  (Taquerias were originally street vendors who set up in working-class neighborhoods much like food trucks who set up in working-class industrial parks before food trucks became trendy circa 2007.)  Along with tacos (whose origin is based on the pre-Hispanic custom of picking up other foods with tortillas.) taquerias served quesadillas, pambazos, tamales, huaraches, alambres and some foods that were not suitable to cook at home(due to kitchen limitations) like – barbacoa, carnitas and roasted chicken.

During Mexico’s industrialization (1890s-1940s) labor moved into the Mexico City. Women from different regions brought their cuisine and cooking skills to the taqueria, expanding everybody’s horizons.

Mexicans have always taken pride in their cooking.

At the core of most taco expressions are the traditional meats, seafood, and chicken.  Beans, rice, and chili peppers to follow. While garnishes – like salsa, cilantro, avocado, tomatoes, onions and lettuce –  are standing by with lime, cucumber and sliced red radishes – to liven it up.  This is festive food, remember.

Thanks to the taco shell – which has been crucial in taking Mexican food outside Mexican communities –  it became my habit to scope out the most authentic Mexican restaurant in my chosen community and judge its worth on the taste of its tacos (In Europe, not so much. Mexican food has not crossed the pond and found the same fan base that it found in America yet.)

My requirements – besides flavor – is it must have authentic Mexican character. Authentic Mexican character or cuisine is really Mexican-American food, which adds American ingredients – like cheeses, onions, hamburger meat and iceberg lettuce – to Mexican ingredients like – salsa,chili spices and tortillas.

Now I can’t tell you how hard it is to find a needle in a haystack because I’ve never looked for one but I can tell you finding an authentic Mexican restaurant in an Anglo bedroom communities even in America it not an easy task.

Forget about what anybody has told you about where to find the ‘real thing’ in taco stands in places like Laguna Beach because taco stands are far and even fewer between.  You get the inside tip from a surfer. Anyone with a surfboard is game.  My surfer source was a 10 year old taking a trolley ride with his grandmother.

“The best tacos in town are Papas Tacos.” he said confidently as we barreled along Pacific Coast Highway.

Papas Tacos is a hole-in-the-wall taco stand with two picnic tables and umbrellas.  Patrons stand in line to order at the window.  Behind the counter clerk, a cook makes everything to order.

The machaca chicken taco on a flour tortilla is well worth the inconvenience of a wait, so I order another.  This time with a side of salsa, black beans and guacamole.   Besides a variety of tacos, Papas Tacos serves burritos, tostadas, quesadilla, enchiladas, tortas and nachos.  Morning, noon and night. While breakfast is available all day long. And it looks and cooks and tastes like a Taco stand too. I’m in heaven.

Since National Taco Day is fast approaching(On October 4), I want to share some of the best places for authentic Mexican food in Los Angeles.  Where you can enjoy tacos and a tasty margarita.

Don Cuco in Toluga Lake is a true gem in authentic Mexican cooking.

Casa Vega, a family-run restaurant whose been in business since 1956, located at 13301 Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks.

El Coyote Cafe  known for its history and salty, greasy, melty, hit the spot Mexican fare.  It’s full of life and tequila.  Located at 7312 Beverly Blvd in Los Angeles.

La Paz Restaurant in the South Bay, serves some really tasty chicken tacos. Very filling and delicious.

Casa Escobar, my favorite for hard-shell chicken tacos is one of the most iconic 50s restaurants on Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica. They also recently opened another location in Westlake Village.

Not to be outdone, Don Antonio, Lares(which I reviewed in 2011. See www.bhoutlook.us/culinary20110702.html)Poquitos Mas and Talpa restaurants in West Los Angeles have good authentic Mexican food with atmosphere.

And because food knows no borders, Korean-Mexican fusion cooking launched Korean tacos right here on the streets of Los Angeles via social media and the internet about five years ago.  Baja Fresh carried a version of Kogi tacos called Gogi tacos on their menu. Not because the special interests, religions and ideologies in the world are any less hell bent on multiplying their ranks – by dividing and conquering – than usual.

Meanwhile, expect a sequel. As the evolution of the taco continues.

Stay tuned.

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