Posted on January 13, 2013
I am almost finished reading a book about the history of the taco, which of course involves the history of tortillas, and therefore the history of corn and wheat flour, and has much to do with the history of the industrialization of food, as well as mining in 19th century Mexico, the lost chili queens of old San Antonio, taco night in Norway, surfer’s running taquerias in Amsterdam, how to make mole in France… a couple of wars and revolutions, colonization, nation building, ranching, tequila making… I’m working up an appetite.
The history of foodways might seem like some obscure thing to read about, but it really is reading the history of the world. In fact it might be the most inter-sectional and materialist way to explore history: it tells the story of the peoples who have made and grown (or gathered) foods, the various political and social events behind how ingredients and dishes migrated and became distinct yet evolving symbols of class, culture, race, gender and sexuality, and every other type of status you can imagine. (And all this before mass marketing and commercialization had a hand in things– but the book covers this too.) It tells how people changed their food to adapt to the earth, and how we changed the earth to adapt to our food. It tells how technology conquered, as well as how cultural biases were often counter forces to innovation.
The simple act of making food portable– by wrapping it in a tortilla, or a corn husk– had massive economic implications, making it possible for people to travel, or do industrial work for long hours without going home, or make a living selling cooked food on the street. But there is also the story of outsiders (who come as conquerors, expropriators, and admirers) complex, often bizarre and varied interpretations of a culture and a people based on how a new food tasted to them. As I make my way through the text, I begin to see how the idea of authenticity becomes a kind of grudge one group of experts holds against many others’ varied experiences; a kind of myth that begs impossible assumptions about how history should have been.
I will do a full review soon, explaining the above with more detail, but I could not resist sharing both a recipe for salsa taquera, and my new favorite taco spot in Las Vegas– Tacos El Gordo, which can also be found in Tijuana, Mexico. The difference between tacos in Tijuana (or Las Vegas for that matter) and those in San Antonio (and south Texas) is really worth a book, and now there is one that does both versions justice. Thank you Jeffrey Pilcher.
My first visit to Tacos El Gordo was late on a Friday night. Given its proximity to the Las Vegas Strip, you can imagine how crowded it was. But to add to the crowding, there is intense semi-organized chaos as lines form in front of the half a dozen cooks working their grills– as opposed to a conventional central counter that takes your order. You have to yell what you want over a glass partition, and then watch them make your tacos, with lightening speed and precision. Flinging salsa in the air with a ladle and catching it with the taco in the other hand just seems fun until you notice the cooks apron doesn’t even have a single drop of salsa on it after hours of doing this– and then you are in awe.
The favorite taco here is the pork adobado– with a chunk of pineapple from the top of the spit. A personal favorite of mine is the taco suadero– which comes with a salsa similar to the one I have made below. It reminds me of really flavorful pot roast, but full of tangy notes and so tender. There are only about a dozen menu items– a few tacos, a few quesadillas (small ones, with gooey Mexican cheese and whatever else you want, topped with a crispy white corn tortilla, and a soft one on the bottom.)
It is probably one of the least over-priced meals you will have in Vegas, but also probably one of the most expertly made, delicious and memorable.
This salsa is one I have always wanted to figure out– it is both smokey and sweet, and tangy and hot. It is all-purpose, hence the name. The morita can also be used here in this recipe.
- 1 lb tomatillos, husked and rinsed
- 1 to 3 dried chile moritas, stemmed (depending on how spicy you like it)
- ¾ cup water
- 1 small white onion
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- fresh lime juice (optional)
- Toast the dried moritas in a skillet for a couple minutes, until you smell them. Then place them in a bowl and cover them in hottest tap water for 30 minutes. Stir them up once in a while to make sure they are submerged.
- Slice tomatillos in half and lay them on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil them on the top ove rack for about 5 minutes on each side (you will need to turn them). Let them cool, and them place them in the blender with any juices.
- Reduce your oven temp to 425 degrees and roast the onions (loosely chopped) and garlic for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let them cool.
- Add the garlic cloves and moritas and ¾ cup water to the blender and pulse until smooth– checking for large piece of the chile. Pour the salsa into a serving bowl. Note: if you want the salsa to look more green– puree the moritas with just enough of the tomatillo and water to make it blend thoroughly, then mix this by hand into the rest of the pureed tomatillos and water. (I dont like my salsa thick so much as not too homogenized, so steps 4 and 5 are all about preference: some folks puree everything together at this stage– but I like to mix the onion and cilantro in by hand.)
- Chop the onion. Stir the onion and cilantro into the salsa, along with about 1 tsp. of salt. Add water if it is too thick. If you made it too spicy, try a squeeze of lime too.