You dial a number and catch a key tossed out a window. Based on the relative location of this window, you approximate the apartment number and knock. The door opens to a Pueblan family seated around a single table the length of the small living room, a matchbox-sized kitchenette in the corner. As you walk through the door, they glance away from the Mexican soap opera illuminating the otherwise still room, and they nod at you to take a seat. You ask for a horchata, a hibiscus tea, perhaps a glass of watermelon and pineapple juice. The queen of the kitchen looks up from behind the counter and listens for your decision. It’s simply too difficult not to try everything.
A rainbow of chile sauces in earthenware bowls line the middle of the table. Lifting the first lid reveals a bright orange seed-in habanero sauce whose floral aroma and fruity, almost citrus-like, intake masks an intense heat. Next, a traditional green tomatillo sauce with cilantro and lime juice bringing a bright acidity to the coarse green tomato puree, while very small bits of jalapeño add some heat. A roasty-toasty rust colored chile de árbol sauce follows, pureed super smooth and dotted here and there with the black bits of smokey char that once clung to the flesh of the roasted chile. And then a bright, citrusy avocado sauce and a fresh tomato-onion-cilantro salsa which proves largely unnecessary given the amount of garnish on each dish.
The Tamal de Rajas was exquisite, despite my initial hesitation to ask for the vegetarian one. A wonderfully moist log of corn masa wrapped into a husk and steamed until the grains of corn plump up, the starch binds them together, and the entire thing just kind of softens and sets in. Slices could be cut with string, the stuff is so steamy-smooth. Inside the masa there is a pocket of sauteed chile poblano and onion as well as a bit of cheese, all of which are soft enough to melt on the tongue, leaving only their caramelized vegetable flavor and a bit of smokiness behind. I tried a few forkfuls of the stuff without any of the sauces so that I could enjoy the natural sweetness of the masa, but then ended up dotting my husk with a bit of each one. This dish is perfect for trying the sauces, since it is very subtle in flavor and thus can use a kick of heat here and there. The ground corn is also great for absorbing these sauces, allowing their flavors to resonate even more.
The Tamal de Mole was nice too, although I could’ve used a bit more of the mole negro itself. A slightly more crumbly masa (no two tamales are the same, after all…) wrapped around shreds of chicken drenched in a black mole, with a very deep, roasted chile flavor that bordered on bitter. I asked the lady what was in the mole and her husband answered. Chocolate, ancho chile and mirasol chiles I remember. And tomatillo and peanuts. But after the 13th-14th ingredient I gave up trying to remember and also gave up looking for individual flavors in the sauce. Mole doesn’t taste like chiles or chocolate or nuts. It tastes like a deep earthy thing with many different notes pulling it in many flavor directions. There is acidity and smokiness, there’s nutty sweetness and nutty bitterness, there’s caramelized bitterness and caramelized sweetness. There’s an ancestry represented in there with the ingredients chosen and the ratios they’re combined in resulting from the collective decisions of mothers and their faithful daughters and rebellious daughter-in-laws going back generations and generations.
Although snapping a picture of an elderly Mexican woman is often completely out of the question (she will literally hide from the lens), the importance of hands in a photo of masa preparation seems to be very clearly understood. The masa harina is knead and pressed by hand before it is placed into this little tortilla press and squeezed thin, then layered into a box where it is kept for use throughout the day. When someone orders a tacos, they are thrown onto a steel hot-plate and grilled until they firm up a bit on the outside and heat through. No grill marks or smoke flavor or anything like that, just a textural thing. Flavor is what the fillings are for!
The first of many tacos I tried with these was the Cecina con Nopales. Cecina is very thinly sliced, salted beef that usually gets a bit too dry for my taste. In this case, it was only a little bit chewy, with some of the grilled cactus hydrating each bite with its own juicy, tender texture. Nopales (cactus) never really blow my mind too much, as they are rather similar to green bell peppers in my opinion, except when they are pickled, in which case they remind me of okra. I guess they are unique in that they have a flat surface, with the skin wrinkling on the outside from heat and the interior remaining tender. It is this shape, more than anything, that makes nopal the perfect pairing with cecina – two types of thin strips that complement each other nicely. The perfect dish to try the chile de árbol sauce out on, since both of the grilled ingredients can handle its intense flavor.
The vibrant orange El Pastor tacos are delicious, with a generous quantity of very tender, sweet and slightly tangy pork chunks making each bite meaty and satisfying. The pineapple used in el pastor apparently has an enzyme that helps denature the protein in the meat, which contributes to its soft, melty quality – fun fact. The juice of the fruit also adds a nice acidity and sweetness to the exterior of the meat, to counterbalance the other major flavor, that of the smoky, charred chile. This one needs no sauce spooned on at all. It stand on it’s own, with the bit of cilantro and crunchy chopped onions sprinkled over the top.
The Cabeza de Res taco is nice, though it tastes pretty standard and doesn’t have too many of the textural intricacies that make the others so much fun to eat. In this case, pulled apart bits and shreds of beef head, mostly cheek, which have been cooked with some garlic and probably bay leaf. The meat is tender, with small slivers here and there slightly tougher. The flavor is nice, not entirely different from that of braised shoulder or brisket. Surprisingly, the meat isn’t too fatty at all – in fact it just looks like very well hydrated, very dark beef. Maybe it was just my taco….
One that is outrageously good is the Taco de Lengua, in which the most tender, moist, spongy chunks of beef tongue adorn the grainy masita, making for a textural contrast that made my eyes roll back in my head. The tongue had clearly been braised too absolute perfection (this is traditionally done with a head of onion, some bay leaves and thyme) and chopped against the grain, to allow the layers of muscle to show. The flavor of this meat are very rich, like a stewed-up brisket, rounded out by the herbs it was cooked with. The cilantro sprinkled on top, as well as a few spoonfuls of one of the more citrusy sauces, do well on this taco, lifting up that deep, musty flavor vegetarians must hate so much.
Speaking of vegetarians… The Cabeza de Puerco taco is kind of a joke, but quite the delicious one, in that as soon as the family saw the look on my face that followed my first bite they chuckled in unison. Fat, but the best kind of fat, but fat unabashed, unapologetic. The fat of a pig’s head is the type of melt-in-your-mouth giggly, soft, slippery, smooth fat, packed with animal essence, reminiscent of the flavors of crispy pork skin but in an opposite textural form. Picking at chunks of it one by one was nice, though an entire taco chock-full of these little cubes of glutinous debauchery is a bit too much to bear for me, even after squeezing the juice of the 3 entire limes over the top. The same amount of chopped onion and cilantro top this taco as the ones next to it, whereas I feel this one needed maybe three times as much added freshness. In this case, while the head pieces themselves are absolutely delicious, I have qualms with the ratio of ingredients. Pork fat is left untamed to wreak havoc.
The Carnitas tacos are, without a doubt, my favorite dish of multiple visits to this quaint apartment. It’s consistently awesome. Parts of it are fatty enough to illicit a rush of endorphins and make me salivate hard. However, they are not as overwhelmingly fatty as the Cabeza de Puerco. Though very well marbled, this is still meat, maybe butt or shoulder. The soft, pillowy bits of fat are saved by the textural contrast from the bits of crispy, caramelized and sticky skin which are in almost equal ratio. I think the meat had been fried before it was braised tender and pulled apart, which made these bits of skin golden brown. The fresh onion in this case is enough to clean up the excess fat from the pork and I didn’t really even need a squeeze of lime over this one at all, nor any citrusy sauce to curb anything.
There is a standing menu on the table of this place, which lists the selections of tacos, tostadas, soups and other stuff which tend to rotate by season. The general rule of “menu length: quality ratio” applies strongly here: there are only a few things offered but those are perfected with time and practice. The menu has two sides, one in Spanish and one in English. Interestingly, there is one item that does not seem to appear on the English side of the menu, and that is the Seso de Res taco. I guess they figure – why have it in English, when no American is going to ask for it anyway? This explains my double-take when I saw it there, a moment in which I was reminded of how often my (though somewhat feeble these days…) command of Spanish comes in handy. Brain tacos. Awesome. Buttery smooth, rich and melt-in-your-mouth soft, the type of morsel you push against the palate and massage with your tongue instead of chewing. The flavor is very mild, as the brain is braised inside of the head instead of being roasted – not too much smoke or caramelization, just the stewed innard flavor similar to that of the tongue. I would suggest squeezing lime over this, as well or putting on some of the more mild tomatillo salsa for an extra boost of flavor to match that tantalizing texture.
Upon ordering the Tostada de Tinga out came a behemoth mound of shredded lettuce, tinga chicken and slices of deliciously ripe, creamy avocado all dumped onto a single fried corn tortilla and sprinkled with crumbled queso fresco, drizzled with crema. Although this to me looks like something an obese Midwestern U.S. citizen would make for himself and try to pass off as a healthy lunch, it is actually a dish native to Puebla. The masa harina in this case is fried in oil (which I guess is good for those tortillas that are getting stale anyway) until it is crunchy and stiff and sturdy enough to hold up moist ingredients without becoming soggy. The shredded white meat layered on top is a chicken breast that has been cooked until soft in a tomato, chipotle and adobo spice based sauce, which results in a very slightly smoky, but mostly sweet flavor. The chicken would’ve actually been almost too sweet for me, had this not been balanced out by the salty crumbles of cheese, but even so the sweetness was still a bit overpowering. The lettuce was bland in flavor and there was too much topping to be able to pick up the fried tortilla, which I really wanted as a crunchy contrast to the shreds of tender chicken. Not my favorite.
The Birria de Chivo is wonderful, if a bit greasy over the top. But then again, this type of good red grease reminds me of the soups made by my grandmother in Hungary – easy to remove after having done its job of bringing out the best in the ingredients that have been cooked with it. The broth of this traditional Jaliscan stew is made with toasted peppers (ancho, guajillo and cascabel, if I remember her answer correctly), some garlic, bay leaves, plenty of onion, herbs such as thyme and oregano, some vinegar (I think) and goat meat which is cooked for hours, allowing it to contribute its own murky flavor to the broth. The meat used is from the ribs of (judging from size and tenderness) a baby goat, the flesh falling straight off the bone. There is a bit of fat along the side, but this meat is mostly flesh, layered in neat little fibers, incredibly soft and flavorful. The soup is topped off with cilantro, and the bits of chopped onion floating around in there added a nice, fresh crunch to offset the softness of the goat. I recommend squeezing lime over this to brighten up the flavors of the broth and to be able to fully taste the natural irony musk of the goat. It is also traditionally served with fresh radish slices, which are available here in a large container as well.