Hot fat drips from succulent, slow-roasting pork on a vertical spit, pork that has been marinated, loved and teased into a deep, Heart of Darkness-level frenzy of flavor. The gentleman tending to this meat is clad in a grease-patina’d apron, shorts, flip-flops and a beater T-shirt that reads “Born Lucky.” His only kitchen wares are a rusty knife, a stack of Styrofoam plates, and a quickly dwindling roll of paper towels. On a nearby table covered in newspaper are some salsas — a creamy green whip of tomatillos, avocado and onion with serrano peppers; something red and fiery that is most likely a simple purée of de árbol chiles — along with a pile of limes and some pickled jalapeños and chopped white onions.
When I walk up, no words are spoken other than a simple “Hola.” I hold up three fingers, signifying the beginning of our transaction. Some of the meat he’s carving drops off the plate, hitting the bare sidewalk beneath. Glances are exchanged; it’s clear that I could not give a shit if he picks up the meat and uses it. He does, in fact, take the meat off th e sidewalk and place it on the pillowy corn tortilla. Cash is handed over and I stand there in the blazing sun, without benefit of a table, chair or even a beverage, in a state of euphoric bliss as I chow on my al pastor taco.
Growing up on the East Coast, I knew nothing of this food or culture. At that time, it simply did not exist in the metro area of Washington, D.C. My introduction to Mexican fare took place at a Chi-Chi’s back in 1988 and consisted of cheesy nachos, cheesier enchiladas and a frozen margarita. I was familiar with halal food, however, and the great Baltimore culinary contribution of pit beef with tiger sauce. So I knew of foods served off someone’s porch, along a deserted roadside, or via a street cart in the city. And when I made my drive out west to plant my roots at the base of the Rocky Mountains, the first thing I did was hit a taco stand. With no idea what to order and no idea what I was o rdering, I sort of let the process unfold naturally via points, grunts and gestures — and ended up crushing some of the most soul-satisfying meals of my life.
Street tacos are an adventure. If a brick-and-mortar restaurant is like an all-inclusive resort vacation free of any obstacles, a visit to your local taquero is more akin to a life-or-death trek through the Amazon. You never know what to expect, and at every turn there is some potential peril that could consume you — or at least so inconvenience you that, in any other setting, you would be vowing “never to return again” — but you do, because there is something primal and freeing about eating on the side of the road.
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It is that freedom and nonchalance with food that has many chefs, including myself, adopting this equation of unintentional culinary irreverence in our own kitchens: misshapen cuts, unapologetically bold flavors, ripping-hot heat, bare-minimum essentials and a total lack of focus on anything other than eating for hunger and fun.
Now, as a result, almost everywhere you go, street tacos are finding their way into the great indoors. Culinary giants are throwing out the fancy white linens and extensive wine lists of loftier-goaled endeavors in favor of the focused simplicity of street food — and it’s changing not only what we eat, but how we eat. Long, prolonged, multi-course dinners that take up hours of our time are being replaced with multiple stops in an evening, so that you can enjoy many tastes instead of being confined to one spot, for one dish, in one sitting.
So that you can take it back to the streets.
Jamey Fader got his start in Denver’s dining scene as chef of Jax Fish House in LoDo; he opened Lola Mexican Fish House as chef-owner , and hosts Dos Casas there every year as a benefit for Brent's Place. Today he's the culinary director of all the Big Red F restaurants, including Lola. Find out more at bigredf.com — and watch for Lola's tacos at Tacolandia, a special area serving up a taste of street tacos at DISH 2015, set for Sunday, September 20 at Sculpture Park.