On my recent trip to San Diego, my local colleague and guide suggested that we pop across the border and have some fun in Tijuana. Always open to new cultural experiences, I agreed. So, after 25 minutes and absolutely no border hassle whatsover, we found ourselves in a taxi cab in Mexico, headed for a less than reputable club and bar, where we had a less than reputable but very fun time. At around 2 a.m., after countless Pacifico’s, it was time to get a bite to eat. On the cab ride over I had already filled my mental note book with scribbled reminders of what to eat and where. It was going to be on the street. It was going to be from an open cart. And it was going to be a taco.
It was on the corners of Calle Coahuila and Avenida Ninos Heroes (man, Google Maps Street View is an incredible invention, thanks little yellow man…) that we spotted this taco stand, run by two mustacheod Mexican dudes who looked like brothers. One of them had on a brilliant red apron. I think he was the boss. What we actually saw first was the smoke, that beautiful and aromatic charcoal grill smoke escaping a crowded mass of eagerly waiting folks and wafting peacefully into the night sky. Yeah, parts of Tijuana are sketchy and walking around at 2 a.m., two pasty white Americans with money in our wallets, was probably not the best idea in general. But, in my experience, sketchiness tends to disintegrate when good food is around. People are generally paying attention to what they’re about to eat. They’re hungry and they’re watching their food being made. And, generally, they’re happy and calm, if a bit impatient. The last thing on their minds is robbing you. There are some things that are just more important than your gringo cash.
This taco cart was honestly like something straight out my dreams. Two tong-bearing, clean looking dudes. One of them handling a charcoal grill and some beautiful slices of carne asada, grilling the stuff in large volumes to appease a crowd of hungry customers, but with special attention paid to not burning or undercooking a single slice. Some slices are left long, some are chopped up into bite-sized pieces. A humongous pile of scallions are grilled right next to the meat, and a generous portion of these is provided (upon request) either inside of your taco or on the side. The other guy handles the tortillas, soft flour tortillas in this case, taking them individually out of their little bag and slapping them on the grill to warm up. I’m pretty sure these men don’t make their own tortillas but it’s also quite obvious that the latter have never been frozen and that they were made by hand not long ago, probably by some relative who prepares them a few hours before these guys take stage each night. But it’s really what lies around the grill that makes this cart a dream come true. A big metal bowl of frijoles, brown Pinto beans cooked up with some garlic and salt pork for extra depth of flavor. Another metal tray with beautifully charred whole jalapeños, slightly burnt, but just enough to add some mouthwatering caramelization to the exterior. And yet another tray containing fresh spring onions, in case you want to add a few, cool and un-grilled, to your taco. On the side, bowls of delicately pickled cucumber slices (barely touched with vinegar), a tomato based salsa, a deeper and darker looking chile salsa, some crunchy whole radishes, chopped up lemons and limes to squeeze over your meat, and sliced red onions coated by what I unfortunately did not realize was chopped habanero peppers. Not too unfortunate, as it was delicious and I was kind of wishing for a burn-my-face-off-with-chiles-in-Mexico dumb gringa moment. But yeah… I couldn’t feel my mouth for a few hours afterwards and I kept sucking in air from the sides to cool my tongue down for the rest of the night. Luckily I had this stuff on one of my last bites of taco, so I still got to taste my food before.
Put it all together and your customized taco can look like this: two layers of soft, slightly powdery on the outside and perfectly warmed through flour tortilla, packed with juicy and lean bits of grilled beef, a few ladles of stewed and very flavorful Pinto beans, some spicy chile coated fresh red onion slices, tossed in a bit of vinegar. Some cilantro and pico de gallo. And – what I love most about these real Mexican taco carts – there is an unlimited supply of toppings and sides, always. It’s the whole all-you-can-eat salsa bar concept that has traveld up to California and, from what I could tell in San Diego, has become pretty solidified as part of the taco experience there. Unfortunately, it has yet to really spread to the rest of the country. In Boston, a “side” of beans, a grilled or pickled jalapeño, a few radishes tossed in, these extras automatically up the price. While my taco-ing companion and I were in a bit of a hurry to eat, like two Cindarellas in a rush to get back from the ball before the clock struck 12 (the ball, in this case, being TJ), I saw some guys who had obviously been standing around for at least an hour, continuously eating, but slowly. A little bit of this, a little more of that. Their plates demonstrated the gradual accretion and erosion of ingredients, the addition of some beans here, a few bites of jalapeño disappearing there… Pay for the tortilla and the meat, add however much of whatever you want, leave when you’re full. Awesome.
And then another taco, also with a double layer of soft flour tortilla and finely chopped, juicy soft carne asada. Lots of pico de gallo in this one and a bit too much of those habanero coated red onion slices. A huge pile of sweet, plump, beautifully caramelized grilled scallions on the side, another charred jalapeño pepper. Doesn’t get much better than this.
The next morning, back in reality, my companion and I were discussing these awesome tacos of the night before (while chowing down on a few Animal Style In-And-Out burgers), and we suddenly realized that we hadn’t actually paid for the meal! Not out of any sort of sneaky desire not – the tacos were probably like $1 each, they were exactly what we had wanted, and we were more than happy with the service – but because the guy just never asked us for money and we simply forgot to give him any. We had stood in front of the stall, packing on the toppings and eating, snapping photos of our tacos and mingling with those around us, for around 10 minutes and during this time no one asked us to pay, because if they had we would have. I do, on retrospect, feel pretty bad about this, but it really does demonstrate an important thing about the experience: making mouthwatering and ultra satisfying food seems to be the number one thing on these guys’ agenda. Making a profit is a secondary concern.
Or maybe they just wanted to be nice to the dumb, over-excited gringos.