Yesterday, I ate Mexican food twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. These two favorite places of mine are very different and very special.
Readers of this blog will already know that I love the flavors of Latino cuisines and that I actually believe that any food served inside of a tortilla is better than any food without a tortilla. So, I’m either an authority on the subject of Mexican food, or merely a fanatic. But seriously, since my wife and I went to Mexico for our honeymoon (luna de miel, en espanol), we have raised our standards for Southwestern inspired cooking. Now, we are seldom satisfied with the combination plate, or the 7lb burrito wrapped in foil.
My new outlook first took me to Taqueria del Sol (<---- painfully inadequate website) in the Merchants Walk shopping center on W. Broad, just past the Glenside/64 (the same strip-mall where the beloved Marshalls, oasis of bargain hunters resides). I went there weeks ago on a weekend morning while running an errand and thought I'd see if they served huevos rancheros, one of my favorite dishes.
When I stepped inside this fairly typical looking Mexican restaurant storefront, I was greeted by a packed house of Latino faces turning to look at the lone gringo. A little intimidating, I must admit. Although, I’m not really a shy guy. Hardly distracted by my entrance, the crowd of customers was jovial and relaxed in the way that brunch crowds tend to be. There was only one tiny table available, and I took it.
Once seated, I noticed that at least half of the customers were leaning over large white bowls of I dunno what. What could this be? I’ve never been served anything in a big bowl in a Mexican restaurant (except maybe a margarita for two). Well, I ordered my huevos and enjoyed my chips and salsa while occasionally craning my neck to peek at la comida del otras personas. I also noticed some drink fountains that circulate various fruity beverages, and one of them was stark white. Horchata! This fabulously sweet drink is made with boiled and strained rice, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. So soothing and satisfying. You have to try it and/or make it at home.
Ya know, at this point, I want to fast forward, because last night’s visit was far more important than my first visit to the Taqueria del Sol. To make it quick, the huevos rancheros were awesome and the red sauce was so delicious that I wanted to lap it up like a dog. When I paid my bill, I casually walked by a few tables and peered down into the big white bowls and saw an orange/red broth with pieces of chicken (with the bones) sticking out. The server said, “caldo de pollo” is very popular at this time of day. This, I recalled, was nowhere on the menu and neither was the horchata (pronounced without the “H”). Hmmm, the real stuff is under the counter and you gotta ask for it. Nice.
Since that visit, I’ve been telling everyone to check this place out. But weeks and months passed before I was able to visit again, this time with Karen. Since before the place recently opened, we had both been curious about the place, because we noticed ceviche on the menu posted in the window. Although it’s a classic fish dish, few Mexican restaurants serve it because it’s fairly delicate (being raw fish marinated in lime juice). Surely, this was a sign that Taqueria del Sol was un poco diferente.
So, I had to order the ceviche and they had to check and make sure that they had it ready. Being a little nervous about ordering the only non-shrip seafood dish on the menu (and it being essentially raw), I asked if it was “good” in both english and spanish with my best, “please don’t poison me” expression (although the real verdict would come later that night). Anyhow, the platter came out and I wolfed it down with gusto, feeling like a heel for my prejudices. The plate was brimming with a mound of finely chopped flounder meat, mixed with loads of cilantro, finely diced onions, slabs of avocado and of course copious amounts of lime juice. Tortillas were included to scoop it all up and I loved every minute of it, only to be awoken from my foodie dream-come-true by my wife interrupting my feast with, “Well, are you going to talk to me, or what?!”
Oh, yeah. This was sort of a date. Silly me. While having a transcendent experience with my entree, I’d totally neglected my wife. Speaking of Karen, she ordered the enchiladas poblanos which were served with dark rich mole poblano all over the plate. To describe this sauce would take several more paragraphs, but just imagine loads of broth, oil, and chilis blended and simmered for hours with unsweetened cocoa, ground pumpkin seeds and maybe ten different thickening agents. As they say, the sauce is the dish. But, it’s an acquired taste, and probably best experienced in its native regions of Mexico. But, the stuff at Taqueria del Sol isn’t bad at all. So, give it a try.
Karen and I washed this grub down with two tall glasses of iced horchata, which was actually a mistake. While delicious, the drink is just sweet enough and thick enough to prematurely fill you up. So, my tip is to split it, and if a second is in order… Oh, one last thing. On each of the tables were specials listed in those plastic encased table tents. Seven different kinds of meat are offered to make up a plate of three tacos. They also had gorditas and sopes. This style of menu was reminiscent of the offerings in Mexico and I’ll bet that the target audience is local latinos. I dunno. Just a hunch. But being mostly a vegetarian, I don’t think I’m going to find out any time soon. Why don’t you go and let me know? I’ll bet that stuff is the real star at Taqueria del Sol.
REVOLUCION DEL TACO!
Earlier in the day, I left my VCU office on Franklin Street just long enough to visit Nate’s Taco Truck, located where Grove and Stuart converge in front of the Performing Arts building and the VCU library. Nate is out there most weekdays during lunch and he’s developed a loyal following since starting up in the VCU area over the past year or so. I think he first caught my eye with his flyers that morphed his bespectacled face into Any Warhol’s enigmatic Che Guevara silhouette. A little bit hippy, Nate is not to be confused with those consistent purveyors of big piles of tasteless rice wraps on Main Street (aka Mobile Munchies).
What Nate offers is, however, a mysterious concoction of spices and herbs and beans and cheeses and meats (tvp or potato melange for the vegetarians), all in taco-sized soft tortillas. Whatever his secret is, the stuff he serves is delicious and prepared with a Cheshire cat’s smile. My favorite is the potato taco. So good. At five potato tacos and counting, I still haven’t found a potato in a single bite, but I’m not complaining cuz it tastes so good. What is that stuff anyhow? Try it and leave a comment here and end my speculation. And tell me what I’m missing out on by passing up the beef/chicken tacos.
One novelty item on the menu is a Frito Pie. If you already know what this is, pardon my naivete, but this popular convenience food was news to me. Nate opens a mini bag of Fritos and tosses everything that he would otherwise put into a taco right into the bag and hands it to you with a fork. And you know what? It’s not bad at all. I guess it’s all about the fixins, and that seems to be Nate’s speciality.
As for me, I’m headed outta town for a week. But I should clarify something. The semi-raw fish at Taqueria del Sol caused me no problems whatsoever. The rest of the night was digestively uneventful, just the way I like it. According to a comment on this blog about my honeymoon eating adventures, that’s the insurance policy of the lime juice. Not only does it cook the food with its acidity, but it also protects you from indigestion. My hat goes off to the contributions of Latin America to my taste buds, among other areas of the public sphere.
And on that note, I’d like to wish my sister in-law, Karina, a big congratulations for weathering the INS appeals process and finally getting a visa so she and my brother can relocate their family from Veracruz, Mexico back to the states.