Where I grew up, in upstate New York, there was no Mexican food. No tacos. No burritos. Just a Taco Bell down on Ridge Road (which did not count at all) and a few square feet of shelf space at Wegman's dedicated to Latino foods: a couple bags of stale tortillas, some pasty refritos, Old El Paso taco sauce and cans of tamales with pull-tab tops like beers used to have. I lived the first ten or twelve years of my life in an utterly taco-less universe, and today I look back at that kid and simply can't understand how the little whelp survived.
Honest to God, it wasn't until my early teens that I ate my first tacos, a bunch of hard shells out of a box with a picture of a cartoon Mexican on the front (shoeless, wrapped in a serape, sleeping beneath the brim of a huge sombrero), filled with ground beef, iceberg lettuce and shredded cheddar. As I got older, I found better (a large cantina with a bullfighting theme, excellent quesadillas and terrible margaritas that opened and flourished briefly in the corner of an abandoned warehouse downtown; a tiny taquería far outside the city where the migrant workers went for posole, plates of chicharrones and leads on work), but it wasn't easy. You had to know what you wanted -- which I didn't -- and you had to know where to look. Even then, there were no guarantees.
It didn't take me long to flee my home town, and when I did, I went west. I had a lot of reasons. Finding tacos was one of them -- not high on the list of priorities, granted, but definitely in my thoughts -- and when I found them, they were at a little roadhouse in San Diego close enough to the border that I could see the security lights. I was starving by the time I made California, having run short of cash about five minutes after crossing the Pennsylvania state line, and this diner was a godsend -- cheap, quiet, brightly lit and, most important, open at 3 a.m. or whenever it was that I rolled my car into the parking lot on fumes and fervent prayer. The tacos were 25 cents apiece. I ate about a dozen. And when I was done, I was sicker than I'd ever been in my life to that point. You can ask the good people who worked the early-morning shift at the Burger King near the entrance ramp to the 805; I'm sure that whoever had to clean the bathrooms that day remembers me with vivid clarity.
2020 South Parker Road, Aurora
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Soon there were other, less catastrophic Mexican meals. Even lovely ones. I had my first sopaipilla a few years later and proceeded to make a dinner of nothing but -- thinking the sopaipilla the greatest food ever conceived by man. I went down to Mexico on a quest for the perfect fish taco, ate burritos at Juanita's in Boulder, lived on tamales from a little drive-thru joint when I was unemployed, made the #13 breakfast burrito at Milton's in Albuquerque famous just by saying once, in print, that I could no longer conceive of life without it. I remember staring at Laura over a palisade of empty beer bottles down in Juarez, my head on the bar, waiting for a plastic basket of tacos to come out of the kitchen. I was in love with everything that night: the girl, the city, the bar we'd found well outside the American quarter with the air-conditioning that would only be turned on if you paid the bartender (one dollar American -- same as the cost of one beer -- for ten minutes of deliciously cold, metallic refrigerated air).
And I remember having my first taco from Tacos D.F. when it was just a two-wheel trailer parked in a gravel lot beside a liquor store on South Parker Road -- a taco truck you could smell from the nearest stoplight, that served things I'd never heard of, like panbazos and tacos suaderos. I ordered three asada tacos that day, and laughed when the woman working the window asked if I wanted lettuce and cheese on them. "Why would I want that?" I asked.
Because most of the white people who came there for tacos did, she said. Or something like that. So she always asked, just in case.
Estilo Mexicano -- those were the magic words. Mexican style: just spice and meat -- rough-chopped grilled steak, marinated in God knows what, with caramelized onions in the case of the asada, and naked chopped pork redolent of char for the carnitas. If you had to gussy up the tacos, there was always hot sauce, along with salsas and picos on ice. Tacos D.F. also served a good torta and often switched up the menu, offering sopes, lamb soup, barbacoa -- all manner of delicious items you could order if you knew to ask or could read enough Spanish to translate the especiales written out longhand on neon-colored construction paper.
And then one day, Tacos D.F. was gone. I was sad, but not crushed. The way I looked at it, one benefit of having a restaurant on wheels is that if you're getting bored with the view or not doing good trade at one location, you can always just hitch your trailer to the back of a pickup and move somewhere else. Knowing the transitive nature of the neighborhood where it had been parked -- right on the edge of Aurora's Little Asia, along that stretch of Parker/Leetsdale that's an immigration activist's melting-pot dream made real -- that's what I assumed had happened.
But as it turns out, Tacos D.F. had gone the other way: Rather than packing up and moving on to a new neighborhood, it had picked up a lease and sunk roots. And last September, it opened in a small strip mall almost in sight of its original location, in that lot next to the liquor store, right next to a different liquor store.
Over the winter, I rediscovered Tacos D.F. and immediately fell in love with a restaurant that, to me, is the Mexican restaurant I started searching for all those years ago. Although it may now have a mailing address, the place is almost like a taco truck parked indoors. There are no printed menus, no waitresses. Orders are taken through a hole in the back wall that looks in on the grills, the stovetops, the battered white coffin freezer and prep tables of a kitchen that's never slow or quiet. A dry-erase board -- maybe the same one that once graced the front of the trailer -- hanging above the hole lists all the available options for tacos, tortas, burritos, huaraches and gorditas; a profusion of paper signs offers consomé and posole, Mexican Coca-Cola and international phone cards. Plates and baskets, bagged takeout orders and trays full of tacos, cash and credit cards -- everything changes hands through that hole in the wall.
It's a perfect system.
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The space is comfortable, the green and gold walls hung with local art (all of which is for sale), black-and-white photos of old movie stars (which aren't) and the scribbled autographs, well wishes and declarations of love from customers who've already passed through. There's a scattering of plastic chairs and tables, and every four-top has its own paper-towel dispenser. At lunch, everyone in the place sits hunched over bowls of consomé, watching scantily clad women teach the alphabet to schoolchildren and fat men fall down on the TV in the corner. In the evening, extended families come in, order the entire menu twice, share their tables with strangers when there are no more spots to be had.
At these tables, I've had the best tacos in the city, delivered direct from the grill to my hand -- homemade chorizo and spicy asada with sweet onions and charbroiled pork, hewn with a cleaver, the tok tok tok of it hitting the board like music to my taco-junkie ears. For the huaraches, the kitchen chops whatever meat it has on hand and throws it on top of a thick, fried-corn flatbread with cheese and Mexican crema and onions: a full meal for six bucks, done in less than five minutes. On Saturdays and Sundays, the kitchen makes barbacoa. There's always tripe, tongue, beef cheek. Off to the side is an old salad-bar unit that holds a spread of limes, homemade tomatillo salsa, a smoky-hot chipotle salsa and something green that smells of cucumber and jalapeño that I thought was homemade guacamole until I tasted it for the first time. It was so hot, I wince just thinking about it.
The tortas are much better now -- the one improvement at the new location beyond being able to sit somewhere other than my car hood. The most extreme sandwich on the board -- the Cubano -- comes stacked with ham, milanesa (breaded steak, fried), salchicha (a hot dog, split lengthwise and seared), cheese, beans, lettuce and a smoky chipotle sauce. But the simple jamón with avocado is my favorite: ham stacked on grilled, soft bread with sliced avocado, lettuce, tomato and that same chile-spiked dressing I'd call a rémoulade if not for the fact that I'm sure there's a Spanish word for it that I just don't know.
I've been living in the West for a few years now. I've become accustomed to that small feeling of comfort that comes from knowing that no matter what happens, no matter how bad things might get, there's always a taco or a burrito or a couple of sopaipillas wrapped in an envelope of oil-slicked waxed paper close at hand. And though I may have traded the easy path to anamnesis that is bought by lack -- by the privation of my youth that made every taco special -- I have no regrets about my current glut of options. I know that I'm lucky. I know that the teenager still inside me -- the one who drove 2,000 miles looking for tacos only to find himself on his knees in a Burger King men's room -- will never truly be sated. And now that I have found Tacos D.F. again -- in nearly the same place I lost it -- I know that availability and ease does not have to equal indifference. I may take a lot of things for granted, but tacos will never be one of them.