DIA DE LOS TORTAS: MEXICO, COLORADO, NEW YORK, FOOD AND ME
by Matthew Lyons
Living in New York City, I’ve discovered that there are only three ways to get good Mexican food here:
1. Not at all
2. Settle for some crappy, half-assed imitations
3. Dig through miles and miles of said crappy imitations to find the rare jewels
4. Say “fuck the search” and learn to make it your-damn-self.
Two of the four are excellent approaches, and two aren’t (hint: #1 & #2). Why would you want to live your life deprived?
I grew up eating and loving great Mexican food. And when I say great Mexican food, I mean truly excellent south-of-the-border cuisine, man. That needs to be said first and foremost. Fact of the matter is, a truly surprising amount of the first twenty-something years of my life were spent devouring the kind of hole-in-the-wall Mexican food that you had to know at least a little bit of Spanish (or a pidgin-Spanglish) to get the food you were there for. In Colorado, Mexican food is serious business. People sell roasted chiles on the side of the road, scorched to perfection in retrofitted-and-burned-black metal baskets. There’s a whole restaurant district west of Denver dedicated to Mexican restaurants and basically nothing but. Taco carts are everywhere, if you know where and how to look. Jalapeno peppers are on basically every menu, regardless of cuisine genre and every table comes with the three core condiments: ketchup, mustard and Cholula hot sauce. You grew up loving spicy food, or you kept your mouth fucking shut, because nobody wants to hear your bitching, anyway.
And then I moved to New York City, and discovered the horrible truth: there’s no such thing as real Mexican food here. I mean, not really.
See, I’ve been around enough to know that it’s a hard fucking gamble to get good Mexican basically anywhere north or east of Colorado’s state limits. I’m not saying it’s impossible, because what’s impossible? But you have to really take some time and dig around.
Especially here on the east coast.
I mean, nobody here knows what Green Chile is, and that single fact alone is enough to burn my brain to ashes if I think about it too hard. Here, the closest thing we’ve got is an atrocity called “red sauce,” and I still don’t know what the fuck that is or is supposed to be. It’s a sauce of some kind, I think, and it seems to come with everything, but shit. It seems to be something taken from the Taco Bell playbook, and Taco Bell is not Mexican food, I don’t give a fuck what you say or think, you’re wrong. Anyone who says otherwise deserves to be dragged out into the street and shot. But you know what New York has? New York’s got Taco Bell. Blech-hork-gurgle-puke.
So, desperate, I started to dig to the best of my ability for something, anything to scratch that itch. Even heroin addicts have to settle for methadone or morphine once in a while, and if I wasn’t going to get something from Alamos Verdes, Santiago’s or Jack-N-Grill (home of the I-shit-you-not 7lb burrito), I’d have to fucking settle.
So dig I did, and after six months or so of searching, I found a place in Queens that was… well, let’s say it was passable. This is a place that wasn’t going to win any awards, and case in point, it actually got shut down for six months last year due to it being unable to meet the bare minimum cleanliness requirements to even be graded by the NY Department of Health.
But that didn’t stop me from gorging myself to the point of food coma the first time I ate there. I dragged my girlfriend along with me and proceeded to eat all of my meal and most of hers. I slept like the dead after we got home, for twelve straight hours, and when I awoke, I felt as if I could soldier on, knowing that there was someplace passable around to get some enchiladas if I needed. Fine.
A week later, this place, let’s call it Amigos Mexicanos, got shuttered, so in the interim, I had to find something to sate the hunger. I went digging again.
Not long after, my girlfriend surprised me with a trip to 5 Burro Cafe, a remarkably crowded hole-in-the-wall cafe in Forest Hills with pictures of the Ramones all over the walls, a low-hanging cantina ceiling, a drink menu dominated by tequila, and a functional knowledge of tomatillos, flautas, green chile and the fact that yes, rice and refried beans count as a side dish, not a feature.
5 Burro was (and still is) great, but just like the rest of the entire goddamned world, there’s a problem with it: it’s a fucking odyssey to get there. I’m lucky, because I only have to take a bus to a forty-minute train ride if I want to dine there. Some people, hell, most people in the city ain’t so lucky. In the end, it had all the prime factors for a regular spot, all save accessibility. So, kicking myself as I went, I began the dig again, and found two places that did something that I’d never seen outside of Colorado before: head, tripe and tongue tacos and, perhaps more importantly, tortas.
Tortas, for those of you that don’t know, are Mexican sandwiches filled to the brim with all sorts of delicious shit like slow-roasted pork leg, garlic, fruit, avocado, onions, a variety of sauces and spices, and whatever the hell else the cook feels like throwing on a sliced roll. They’re pretty much amazing, and the first time I found them on a menu, I excitedly texted pretty much everyone I knew. Mostly I got back “what the hell are you talking about”s, but I did get a few “no fucking way”s, so it all kind of evened out. Head, tripe and tongue tacos are exactly what they sound like: tacos with tongue meat stomach, brain, or sometimes all three, and even though it might sound a little like ghoul food, I defy you to try one with plenty of cilantro and lime and radishes and tell me I’m wrong.
Tacos Mexico and El Cafetal have all the hallmarks of legitimate taquerias, but paying delivery fees and tips on like, a weekly basis, can get a little old, not to mention the permenant smirk on the delivery guys’ faces that seem to say “How many weeks in a row does this make, guero?” So this past weekend, I did something new. I took a third option and made my own.
Using an inexact, make-some-shit-up-as-you-see-fit recipe and three pounds of raw pork shoulder I managed to scam off of one of my co-workers, I slow-roasted the pork, made the whole house smell like dead pig, and by dinnertime, ended up with three pounds of homemade pernil, which was then thin-sliced and carved into meat for my own tortas for me and my fiancee and one of our roommates. I buttered down some rolls, piled the pernil high, then topped the pig off with sliced pinapple, pickled jalapenos, adobo sauce, queso blanco and red onions, and then I smashed it all down in my panini press.
It was fucking delicious. Maybe the best sandwich I’ve ever made, and I’ve made my fair share. I ate two of those damn sandwiches and ended up gorging myself in a way that I haven’t since I discovered Amigos Mexicanos for the first time. I put myself in a food coma and I slept the sleep of the righteous.
So, four approaches to it. As it stands, I’ve tried all four, and, well, two of them work great. Those other two, well, they just plain ain’t worth it. So, if you’re sitting at home (or near Astoria) this weekend and feel like experimenting, do yourself a favor and try something new. You’ll definitely want to thank me for it, and if you don’t, who gives a fuck about what you think, anyway? I know I’m right, I don’t need validation from some anonymous internet jaghole who doesn’t dig on Mexican food.