The Brains of the Operation
So where'd you go for lunch?" I asked.
"We ended up at El Taco de México -- it's got real Mexican Mexican food. You been there yet?"
I shook my head. I've been eating like a pig since I came to town a few months ago, and despite the fact that I drink about fifteen cups of coffee a day and have the metabolism of a hummingbird on crank, I've already put on about ten pounds. Yet it seems that every time someone drops the name of a place where they just had a good meal, I've never heard of it.
We were standing by the back door in the alley behind Westword, which is the smoking section and an informal employee lounge. This is where I get some of my best unsolicited restaurant tips and -- same as when I was still in the kitchens -- where I get a lot of my best work done. The expansion-grate staircase next to the dumpsters is like my second office.
"What do you mean, Mexican Mexican?" I asked.
"They got all kinds of weird shit on the menu, like tripe, menudo, tongue and cheeks. They have brains, too. Right on the menu. Brain tacos."
"Sounds yummy," I said, grinning. "I gotta check that out."
For reasons of personal safety, my first visit was a scouting mission. I showed up at El Taco's no-frills outpost on Santa Fe Drive (the original restaurant, on Sheridan Boulevard, closed years ago) about five minutes before closing time and ordered rice and a single asada soft taco to go. My thinking went something like this: If, at the end of a busy night, this place could serve me food that didn't taste like it had been sitting around since breakfast, then it should be safe to come back the next day, early in the day, to try the brains. Freshness is a big issue when you're talking about organ meats, and in any case, the ability to dish up quality grub from the minute the door opens until a minute before it closes is, in my world, the most telling indicator of how a restaurant feels about its customers and its food. A good, fresh meal served at five minutes to ten tells me that the place actually cares about every poor shlub who comes wandering in off the street and, likewise, cares about the food being served from its line. Had I been sent on my way with dried-out asada on a stale tortilla, or rice all crusted up sitting untended for hours, I probably would have bagged El Taco right then and there. And I certainly wouldn't have gone back to try my first brain taco, because I'm not sure if being stricken with bovine encephalitis is covered under the company health plan.
But it all turned out fine. When I arrived, they were scrubbing down for the night -- a half-dozen tired Mexican ladies attacking every flat surface with soap, bleach and galley mops as if at war with invisible armies of germs and bacteria. After being barked at in lisping Spanish by the woman behind the counter, one of them trudged off to the stoves to put my dinner together; a minute later, it was packaged to go. I opened the styro the second I got back to my car. The rice was steaming, warm and fluffy, orange with gentle spice and as fresh as if it had been made special for me as soon as I'd walked through the door. The asada was hot and tender -- not at all old or scorched or tired -- and still juicy from the grill. My only complaint was with the tortillas, fresh off the oiled flat-top but mealy; they were La Favorita brand -- a surprise when everything else was homemade.
Tortillas aside, that snack was a green light for a return visit. I felt confident that I could trust El Taco not to poison me, that whatever I got would be prepared carefully and well. But still...
It wasn't the thought of the brains themselves that scared me. I've eaten brains before and enjoyed them, I suppose, as much as anyone can enjoy anything eaten primarily for the pure, sick thrill of it. Back in New York, I even cooked with brains -- every so often turning out a nice, freak-show Saturday-night special of calves'-brain hash with potatoes, onion, peppers and garlic that people loved right up until they found out what it was. But every time I'd encountered brains before, it had been in a fine-dining environment, where the assumption (however unfounded) is that the chef has been trained in the proper use of such an esoteric ingredient.
Eating brains from a takeout-counter Mexican joint was something else entirely. The fact that El Taco has been serving them for close to twenty years -- that they're listed right alongside tongue, chicken and barbacoa on the big menu hanging above the counter, as though eating brains was the most natural act in the world -- provided no comfort. Nor did the two plaques on the wall announcing El Taco's Zagat awards of excellence (for 1999 and 2001), because for all I knew, those Zagat people were a bunch of sissies who'd sampled nothing but the green-chile chicken enchiladas and a couple of tamales before putting their seal of approval on this establishment.
But I had to try. I stepped up to the counter and ordered an adovada burrito "all the way" -- stuffed fat and smothered with cheese and green chile -- and a strawberry liquada, so that if my gringo stomach had some intestinal issues trying to digest this peasant Mexican chow, I'd at least have something more familiar to tamp down the gray matter. Then, as an afterthought, I asked the woman behind the counter what the brains on the menu were the brains of.
"A cow," she said matter-of-factly. "They are from a cow's head."
"And is it good? Do you eat it?"
Then the big question: "Do you like it?"
She gave me a look like I was not only wasting her valuable time standing there trying to make up my mind, but like I must be some kind of idiot besides. It was simple: The cow is food, the brains are in the cow, so the brains are food.
"It's good," she said, totally deadpan. "Try it."
And I did, adding a brain soft taco to my order. From where I was sitting at the counter, I could see the cook working over the grills and burners, preparing my dinner. The tortillas went down, followed by the adovada for my burrito. Beans and rice were dished up. On the other side of the kitchen, I could hear the whine of the blender as the counter woman whipped up the milk and fresh strawberries for my liquada, but I couldn't look that way, because I was waiting to see --
There they were! Coming out of their spot on the hot table right next to the marinating asada, the brains were ropy, gray-brown and looked wet. They hit the grill with a sizzle and almost immediately turned white, like boiled chicken. Salt, pepper, a little onion, cilantro and a sprinkling of crushed red-chile flakes finished them off. The organ meat spent a terrifyingly short amount of time on the flat-top -- maybe thirty seconds -- before the cook was scooping it onto my double tortilla with a bench scraper, wrapping it in foil and bagging it next to the burrito.
The counter woman slid over the liquada, turned around, and gave me the bag.
"Limes?" I asked. Not necessarily because I wanted them with my dinner, but I had half a bottle of Porfidio tequila at home that I figured I might need for medicinal purposes, and no limes to go with it.
She took one from a cooler, split it in half with a cleaver, wrapped both halves in foil, and handed them to me.
I said thanks and walked out the door, because I just couldn't bring myself to eat the brain taco inside. Even if I could have snagged one of the six cramped booths that line the front window, I was afraid of embarrassing myself in front of customers who might very well eat brains every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
But I wanted to try the brains hot, fresh off the grill, so I pulled out of the parking lot and at the first red light on Santa Fe, unwrapped my taco. The light turned green, and I had three blocks to convince myself that everything was going to be fine, that people all over the world eat brains without batting an eye, and that if you're going to try a brain taco from anywhere, you should trust the restaurant that's been cooking peasant Mexican for people who know peasant Mexican for almost two decades. I hit the next red light. I closed my eyes. I took a bite.
Boogers and cilantro. Those were the first two things that leapt immediately to mind, and they burn still like hot, red neon in my memory of the moment. It was salty, the texture soft and mushy, with a consistency like Jell-O or the skin that forms on top of pudding left out too long in a warm room. My own brain recoiled at the thought of eating the brain of something else in such a recognizable, unadulterated form, but I forced myself to chew. And chew some more. The light turned green, and I had to think about driving then, maneuvering through six o'clock traffic. The distraction helped. I chewed, swallowed, gasped, lit a cigarette and shuddered.
My revulsion was a purely psychological reaction that had nothing to do with the taste of the taco itself. And after the challenge of that first bite -- after not choking, throwing up, bursting into flames or anything else -- the next bite was a cinch. Now I could concentrate on the flavor, which was mellow, salty and earthy with a weird, almost metallic, almost rusty, note that hung just at the back of the tongue. The crushed chile flakes added a little spice, the lightly cooked onions a touch of acidity. I didn't hate it. After the initial shock and nausea, I didn't exactly like it, but it wasn't bad. In all, the entire experience was like dropping acid for the first time -- not in the effect that the drug has on you, but in the excitement, fear and wonder that grips you in that moment after you put the blotter on your tongue and before the ride begins. You know you've just done something irrevocable and strange, but no one can tell you what, exactly, is going to happen next.
What happened next was that I almost got sick anyway, but it had nothing to do with the taco. My liquada -- by far the most harmless item I'd ordered -- had been made with milk that was close to spoiling. And warm. That a grill-seared brain taco and a huge, gloppy burrito went down with little trouble, while milk and strawberries almost made the whole lot come back up again, was one of those ironies that make me think there really is a food god up there who watches out for his mad children -- and that he's a black-hearted bastard with a sick sense of humor.
After all that, everything else on El Taco's menu seemed positively pedestrian. Tripe? No problem. Tongue? Bring it on.
The burritos -- for which El Taco is rightly famous, since it started serving these monsters long before the words "big burrito" became enough of a hook on which to hang a nationwide chain -- were huge, the size of a fat man's forearm, and stuffed generously with whatever the hell the cook felt like throwing in. I've had three so far, and none were the same. Rice seemed to be standard, and then there was whatever meat you ordered, like chicken, tongue or adovada. That was sometimes topped by beans (twice), cheese (once inside and on top, once just on top) and green chile (twice, both inside and on top, and, ultimately, all over my favorite pair of jeans, because this stuff is messy, and El Taco uses a lot of it). I don't know if this inconsistency was my fault or the kitchen's, because ordering when the place is busy is like trying to get the right drinks from the bartender at a packed club. I finally decided the solution was to just order and hope for the best. The marinated meats, smoky chile, refritos as smooth as pâté and fluffy rice combined into one great mouthful that explained why the big-ass burrito became marketing gold.
I didn't try the tongue (lengua), but I did have some menudo. Long touted as mankind's only guaranteed cure for the common hangover, menudo is a hearty, spicy, slow-cooked stew made from hominy, chiles, and tripe, feet, knuckles or any other unattractive cut requiring several hours of cooking to bring out its more subtle charms. El Taco was wise enough to use some honeycomb (the darker, more strongly flavored muscular lining from the cow's second stomach) along with the fattier first stomach, which gave the soup a strong, heavy flavor and reduced the greasiness you get from including smooth tripe only. The menudo is spicy enough that you'll work up a good sweat sitting there hunched over a bowl, and it came with tortillas to cut the heat and little black three-footed bowls bearing limes and a red-chile sauce.
El Taco has run-of-the-mill Mexican favorites as well, from chicken enchiladas in a surprisingly gentle and flavorful green-chile sauce (but made with those overly dry tortillas, unfortunately) to flautas and tamales, to chiles rellenosthat I didn't sample only because I'd already stuffed myself stupid on some of the stranger offerings you'll never see at your neighborhood Chipotle.
I've had better al carbón, but the carne asada was fabulous: The cook pulled a whole slab of grilled, marinated flank steak out of its place in the hot table, threw it down on the scarred plastic cutting board, and laid into it with a cleaver until the whole thing was reduced to shreds. I also gobbled down a few cabeza tacos, which weren't anything strange because I've always been a fan of cheek meat. I know that for most Americans, the thought of eating any part of any animal north of the shoulders or south of the haunches is disconcerting, but that's because we (and I include myself here, certainly) are privileged consumers. We are the people to whom all the best parts of the cow (or pig or what have you) are sold -- the T-bone, ribs, rounds, flank and tenderloin -- which leaves the peasant the leftovers of head, tail, neck, feet and organs.
And the peasant doesn't throw this stuff away, of course. The peasant cooks it and eats it just like he's been doing for generations. Meat is meat, after all, and here in the First World, it is nothing more than cultural conceit that keeps us from appreciating such things until some chef somewhere goes out and puts them on a china plate with a sprig of parsley. One of the first kitchens in upstate New York to start offering veal cheeks was at a country club -- the ultimate bastion of food snobbery -- and the chef created such a stir in the foodie kingdom that his kitchen wound up winning a medal in the culinary olympics for its use of such an original and unpopular cut. After that, cheeks were everywhere. Veal, beef, pork, halibut: Any critter that had cheeks was fair game.
And this wasn't surprising, because of all the leftover cuts, cheek meat is the best -- smooth-tasting and full of flavor, with a texture like tenderloin. For an El Taco taco, the meat was again pulled from its spot on the hot table, bashed all to hell with a cleaver and quickly grilled, then folded into a double tortilla with onions and a sprinkling of cilantro. Straight off the flat-top, it tasted full-bodied, meaty, simple and as tender as a $40 Angus loin beaten with a hatchet. But you have to eat cheek meat hot, because for some reason I don't entirely understand, as it cools it takes on a gooey quality that's absolutely revolting.
When El Taco de México's kitchen is really working, the banging from the cutting boards is loud, and it carries. You can hear it over the phone. You can hear it out in the parking lot. Stop in during the worst crush of a busy rush, and you'll be right in the middle of one of the most jumbled, bungled, mingled, noisy, crowded and cosmopolitan spots in the entire city. The long, narrow space will be full of those wholesome kitchen smells and packed with people chasing after El Taco's reputation -- regulars from the neighborhood, Denver foodies with a yen for the simple charms of authentic old Mexico City flavors, whole immigrant families stopping in for hot bowls of menudo after church, businesspeople on their breaks, cholos, gringos and everyone in between. Everyone who knows good food, that is, and can recognize it in any environment.
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