One side effect of being a restaurant critic is that you can't help analyzing every bite that goes into your mouth. It's automatic. At dinner I might be having a fascinating conversation about something very far from food, but under the surface my brain is still buzzing with passing thoughts like, "Is that ginger?" or "Too much salt!" or "I would have added acid" or "What's with the heaping garnish?"
Sometimes, though, that bite is so stunning, so nuanced and so perfect that my brain quickly shuts down into a mind-addled state of warm, fuzzy bliss, and I quit trying to dissect whatever it is that I'm eating and just sit there, glassy-eyed and unable to converse at all, simply experiencing the food.
That's what happened the first time I tried the seven-chile mole at Tarasco's New Latin Cuisine.
Tarasco's New Latin Cuisine
470 South Federal Boulevard
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Tarasco's New Latin Cuisine
Mole 7 chiles $9.99
Tamal de elote $1.75
Enchiladas verdes $8.99
Enchiladas de espinaca $8.99
Tacos (order of four) $6
I was sitting in a booth at Tarasco's, a tiny, dark spot in a Federal Boulevard strip mall that I'd visited many times before. My friend and I had already admired the planks etched with English and Spanish words of wisdom that cover almost every square inch of the walls, made our order, and were chatting away when our server unceremoniously delivered our plates. Mine was a pile of pork covered with a sauce the color of deep rust, speckled with sesame seeds; a scoop of rice was on the side. As I listened to my friend, I lifted a spoonful of the mole to my lips. My brain immediately picked out cumin, clove and garlic...and then started to go fuzzy. My friend's voice faded as the velvety stew spread over my teeth and tongue with a pleasant, tingling heat, leaving first a twinge of sweetness, then palate-cleansing earth, then sweetness again until the sensations were inextricably linked, layered and all present at once, each flavor subtly showcased simultaneously. As that fog of bliss smothered any ability to think critically, I realized I didn't want to think anyway. I didn't want to know the precise spices and ingredients that were causing these chemical reactions in my mouth. Instead, I just wanted to relish the magic of a moment when everything came together exactly right, thanks to a perfect recipe and painstaking technique. And I gave silent thanks to a cook who had clearly mastered his craft.
Finally noticing that I was paying no attention to her chatter, my friend stopped talking and spooned some of the pork and mole onto a tortilla for herself.
The mole at Tarasco's speaks for itself. Which is handy, because until recently, Tarasco's didn't push it hard enough.
Noe Vernudez, a native of Michoacán, opened this restaurant six years ago and named it for the people who live on the west coast of Mexico. Tarasco's purports to serve "Nuevo Latino Cuisine" off a small-print menu with a long list of all manner of Mexican items, everything from burritos and tacos to chilaquiles and tortas to burgers and hot dogs (which is both hilarious and charming). The first time I stopped in, almost two years ago, I ordered a platter of tacos: three corn tortillas layered with char-flecked carnitas, peppery al pastor or shreds of barbacoa, then topped with cilantro and onions. They were fine, but they weren't the best in the city. And so the next time I had a taco craving, I didn't even think about going to Tarasco's; there were plenty of other places I knew could do better.
But I was sold on the juices at Tarasco's. The place has no liquor license, but it does have an extensive roster of fruit juices (written in Spanish, but the staff will happily translate for you) that are made fresh to order in a blender. The iron-man — a mix of pineapple, orange and mango — quickly became a favorite refresher on warm days. And whenever I stopped by Tarasco's for a glass, I'd haphazardly sample another item from the menu.
By that random method, I discovered that the enchiladas are good, particularly those stuffed fat with chicken and smothered with the tomatillo-based green sauce, bright with acid and subtly spicy. I also really enjoyed the spinach enchiladas that Tarasco's offered as a special one day: Corn tortillas had been wrapped around garlicky sautéed greens, then bathed in a light, fresh, tomato-based sauce and punched up with tart crema and salty queso fresco. The lard-imbued refried beans that came on the side were an excellent complement, too.
Thanks to the culinary gods, on one of these trips a friend finally pointed to a sign touting the seven-chile mole, which I ordered. And then I took that first bite. When my brain finally cleared from the euphoric haze of discovery, I realized that most of the Tarasco's menu is just so much window dressing. A closer examination of that menu — and a little critical thinking — revealed that a handful of Michoacán specialties are sprinkled throughout the mix.
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So I stopped wasting my time with tacos and burritos at Tarasco's. The next time I stopped in, just days after I discovered the mole, I pressed my server for his favorite Michoacán dishes. My efforts were rewarded by a corn tamal appetizer: a husk filled with silky, sweet, kernel-studded masa and drizzled with more crema and queso fresco. I ate it with a spoon and imagined how good it might be for breakfast. Then came the pozole, a brimming bowl of fiery orange liquid sided by a platter heaped with limes, cabbage and diced onions, plus the oddly thick chips Tarasco's delivers before you order your meal. I eagerly dumped the produce in the bowl, squeezed in the juice from the limes and started to eat, plunging my spoon all the way down to the hominy that covered the bottom of the dish.
My brain started working immediately, delighting in how the gummy texture of the hominy played off the crisp strands of cabbage. From the broth heavy with pork fat, I managed to pick out the garlic before the heat of the cumin and chiles begin to build on the back of my palate. And then, as it had with the mole, my brain shut down. Everything rolled together, each mouthful supremely complex and utterly simple. I sucked up every drop, tuning out the Spanish-language soap opera playing on the TV above the front door, the stream of cars on Federal beyond the parking lot, the Spanish chatter of my server and the cook, who had no one else to attend to. It was an almost out-of-body experience, except that my body was the beneficiary of all this magical goodness that fed the soul as much as the stomach.
I finally came to when my server brought my check, along with a ceramic bowl full of lollipops. I didn't take one, though. I wasn't quite ready to break the spell of Tarasco's.