An Evening with El Pelón Taqueria

I’m moving to Washington D.C. in a few days, and have been feeling quite nostalgic lately as a result. In the past week I packed up the room I grew up in, had multiple boxing-and-wining nights (as in putting things into boxes, while drinking wine) with some very good friends and I’ve taken long, meaningful walks around my neighborhood, all while reminiscing about the good old days. It’s a Friday night, the night before my going away party, and I’m staying in to do all sorts of mature and productive things like laundry, dishes, and catching up on food reviews. It seemed like the perfect night to pay a visit to an old friend around the corner, El Pelón Taqueria. Plus, having recently gotten back from a trip to San Diego, I’ve been on a bit of a taco binge lately…

photo3El Pelón on Peterborough is one of the first restaurants I ever ventured out to on those days where I wanted to spend my weekly allowance and Cold Stone money (yes, I worked there for when I was 15…) on something other than concert tickets and band tees. Their tacos were a nice alternative sometimes to the mom-food that our fridge was constantly graced with. Gigantic, über-filling burritos were a nice contrast to the bite-sized meats and cheeses, the gourmet tapenades and fresh bread I was lucky to have always lying around in the kitchen. While I love the latter and feel truly blessed to have grown up with a gourmande for a mother, changing things up was, and still is, nice every once in a while.

photo2My freshman year of college, while I was pretty involved in my life on campus (and with not much beyond that…), news of a tragedy from the ‘hood reached my unsuspecting ears. It was the month of December and El Pelón had caught fire… and burned to the ground. Luckily, they rebuilt in just a few months. But then, just one year later, in the January of 2009, it burned down AGAIN, along with five other restaurants that I had grown up next to and which had been near and dear to my belly. Among the casualties was Rod Dee, a Thai joint whose “#14 Star Noodle with Chicken and Shrimp” was a staple of my mom’s and my diets on days where she was too tired after work to cook. Luckily, Rod Dee rebuilt. A fatal victim was Umi, a Japanese place with wonderful sushi boats and teriyaki bento boxes, and the restaurant where my parents and I celebrated my having gotten into Harvard, as well as my breakup with a terrible boyfriend. Sorento’s, a meh little Italian trattoria, was where I had my first date with that terrible boyfriend, another fatal victim (the restaurant, not the guy…). Thornton’s I didn’t go to very often, but I remember it always being packed with the portion of the post-Sox-game crowd that was adventurous enough not to just end up drinking at the terrible bars on Lansdowne or Jerry Remy’s. It had a cool vibe. But the most beloved of them all was El Pelón, renowned amongst Fenway-Kenmore residents (though we say we are from Back Bay to seem cooler) for their tacos, burritos and tamales. El Pelón somehow managed to pick itself up and brush itself off yet again and the fire actually gave owner and fellow Fenway resident Jim Hoben exactly the kick in the goods he needed to open a second location in Brighton, near Boston College.

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And since the Fenway location rebuilt in November 2011 (unfortunately, while I was still in Buenos Aires), it seems to have completely risen from its ashes, like some sort of savage, beautiful Mexican phoenix. The restaurant is packed on most nights, and people can be seen stuffing their faces with rice and beans on the benches outside even during the colder days of winter. Loyalty of the local community fan base is the name of the game here. I am ashamed to admit that I myself have not been so loyal. Since the place burned down I hadn’t been back. I had passed by it daily on my way to and from the gym (yeah… I work out…) but I never thought to give the new version a chance, suspecting that it would not measure up to its (and my) formative years. Until tonight. Tonight, sentimental from my impending move, I strolled in and asked the counter lady what their signatures were, in order to assess how much the menu has changed. It hasn’t. The signatures are the same, the fan favorites – the cornmeal-cod tacos and the funky-ingredient burrito. I got one of each and some carnitas for extra measure.

4First came the individual Carnitas Taco, on a soft corn tortilla, with refried beans, onions pickled in lime, pickled red cabbage, cucumbers and fire roasted salsa. When I ordered these, the girl working the reg suggested I get the tortilla doubled up. I understand why. What I don’t understand is why anyone would go to the Burger King down the street when they can get one of these for just $2.75 a pop at El Pelón. The taco contains a ton of juicy, delicious strings of fall-apart tender braised pork shoulder, enough to where the edges of the tortilla just barely meet when pinched together. The roasted salsa gives the meat a nice smoke, which goes with the slightly sweet pork nicely. El Pelón’s signature cabbage, which they use on pretty much all their tacos, is pickled, I think, in apple cider vinegar. It has a crisp, mulled cider flavor in addition to just being tart. The cabbage, along with the “limed” slices of white onion add a crunch to offset the softness of the pulled apart strands of luscious meat. The cucumber slices are unnecessary, especially since they are too large to fit into a single bite. What I appreciate about this taco is that the liquid from the pork and salsa moistens the tortilla at the base just enough to where it is mushy and soft, but not soggy. The tortilla ends up soaking up all of the delicious meat juices, which are very much maintained and served along with the carnitas, and becoming wet with the stuff somehow brings the grains of corn that make up the tortilla to the forefront, reminding the eater – “I’m corn, homey.” My preferences met. Very happy with this one.

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7Next up, the Pescado Tacos, one of their all-time most popular items. I’m usually hesitant about fish tacos in the Northeast, but this one is not half bad. The fish (in this case, cod, of course…) appears in the form of spice-encrusted cubes of the stuff, coated in a mixture of cornmeal and crushed black pepper, and fried until crispy on the outside. The chunks, of which there is a solid amount, are served with Arbol chile mayo, limed onions, pickled cabbage and cucumber. These are actually some of the only fish tacos made with battered and fried fish rather than grilled fish, which I actually enjoy. The cod remains firm in texture, but falls into creamy, buttery flakes when bitten into. The batter is very thin, just enough to add a crunch. I also like that it is made with coarse cornmeal, as this becomes extra crunchy and does not pick up excess grease. The cornmeal is mixed in with plenty of black pepper and herbs which add a depth of flavor to the fish. These flavors are elevated even higher by the Arbol chile mayo, that adds both heat, and creaminess to soothe the crunch of the coating. The pickled cabbage and onions work even more nicely here than in the carnitas taco, as they offset the warm, slightly oily bits of fish with their own fresh crunch and tangy flavor. Corn tortilla doubled up in this one as well, but I think in this case only one layer is enough. I recommend removing the outer tortilla so that the carb doesn’t take over the texture of the fish. Once again, cucumbers are kind of awkward, too big and unnecessary.

9It’s weird that El Pelón doesn’t sell these fish chunks as an appetizer. They’d be neat with a nice little dipping sauce – a chile mayo perhaps.

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12Next up, their most popular item, the El Guapo burrito. The thing is massive and ironically named, because while it is pretty tasty, it is also one ugly motherfather. Juicy, tender chunks of grilled steak, some Mexican rice, black beans, melty jack cheese, fire roasted salsa, a few wilted little leaves of Romaine lettuce, crema and – what makes the burrito stand out as El Pelón’s magnum opus – fried plantains. What is probably at least 3-4 pounds of filling, all wrapped into a humongous round flour tortilla which has a nice bite but which does not become either chewy or mushy at any point. While I’m not generally a burrito gal and I’ve never been able to finish even half of one because of the heftiness of the rice and beans, this is one of the few I actually enjoy rather than just endure. And that is because it is packed with steak, and big chunks of it too! Honestly, there is more steak in this thing then there are in 2-3 steak burritos from any other place I’ve tried in Boston. Each piece is different in shape and texture – some are juicy and soft, some more crispy end bits – but they are deliciously beefy and not watery in flavor at all. The rice and beans are good too and the combination of the two, along with the crema, makes for a smooth, mushy bed for the steak pieces to relax in. The salsa adds a tiny bit of smokey flavor back into the rice and beans, although there could be a bit more of the it. The moist, melted cheese glues everything together and pockets of the stuff gather between chunks of meat and in the folded corners of the tortilla, making for surprise gooey bits here and there. The lettuce is a bit unnecessary, as it wilts too much, adds no crunch and it can’t even sarcastically suggest that the burrito is a healthy dinner. What makes El Guapo their signature is the addition of fried sweet plantains, a not-so-secret ingredient that contributes additional mushiness, but also a floral sweetness to the otherwise entirely savory burrito. While I understand that some love that gooey, sticky caramelization of fried sweet plantains, and while I very much appreciate the ballsiness of adding these to their burrito, the sweetness is a bit too much for me when combined with the salty steak. For me, bananas are fruit and any combination of fruit and meat (with the acception of cranberries and turkey) is necessary an unnatural one that I will most likely not enjoy. Maybe my palate is an old-fashioned prude but steak is salty and smokey and it does best when surrounded by other salty things. No mango chutney or peach glaze or bananas, please! That being said, I still enjoy their steak burrito as much as I did in high school and it left me feeling satisfied, though bursting at the seams a bit.

Goodbye for now, El Pelón Taqueria! You made my high school years a tad less painful and you still live up to your reputation as the best taco-stop on the block. Go home, La Verdad. Now that the boss is back, you are no longer needed in the 02215.

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