City Paper is not for tourists
The metro area’s sudden wealth of taquerias hasn’t necessarily made it easier to secure the kind of street snacks that you’ll find in Mexico. Perhaps that’s not surprising and I shouldn’t make a fuss about it. The United States is not Mexico, and the American palate, if one can generalize about such things, is not the same as the Mexican palate.
I’m reminded of this simple fact as I’m standing with Osiris Hoil, owner of the gleaming new District Taco stand at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and N. Lynn Street in Rosslyn. Hoil hails from the Yucatan, where the sauces are habanero hot and the tacos plainly prepared, little more than two corn tortillas, a meat filling, diced onions, cilantro, and salsa. Simple, yes, but undeniably tasty, as each ingredient plays a role in the sophisticated balance of this humble snack.
But as I review Hoil’s offerings, I’m struck as much by what’s missing as what’s available. No diced onions. No cilantro. Very little meat. And corn tortillas must be special ordered or else your taco comes wrapped in the flour variety. I look around at the busy professionals on the sidewalks, dressed in their suits and smart outfits, many walking and texting at the same time, and I sympathize with Hoil’s dilemma.
“You have to cater to your clientele,” I tell him, as reassuring as a kindly uncle. “That’s exactly right,” he responds.
Similar issues can be found at George Grau’s new Tomatillo Taqueria, which does a brisk lunchtime business selling burritos and tacos out of a sidewalk window at the Big Hunt just off Dupont Circle. A colorful garnish of red onions and jalapeños essentially stands in for plain diced onions. Shredded romaine tries to perform the same greening duties as cilantro. And a single pre-made corn tortilla, briefly warmed in a press, is forced to maintain the structural integrity of the traditional two-ply, a task at which it sometimes fails, as your braised meats burst through the ruptured pipe of your dry tortilla.
Which brings me to another concern: the lack of homemade tortillas at these new taco purveyors. District Taco and Tomatillo Taqueria both use pre-made tortillas, as do fellow newbies Pica Taco in Adams Morgan and H Street Country Club in the Atlas District. I understand the reasons why. Even with masa harina, it’s still a small production to make your own dough, press each dough ball into shape, and then toast them on a griddle. It’s so much easier to buy a bag of tortillas and warm them.
Besides, as Ann Cashion has taught us at Taqueria Nacional, sometimes good things come in bags stuffed with pre-made tortillas. Part of the trick, I think, is knowing how to bring a bagged tortilla to life. Does the taqueria heat the rounds on a griddle with oil? Or does it just warm them in a press, creating none of the steam pockets and char that can give commercial tortillas more personality?
Despite these newcomers’ lack of homemade tortillas, I’m surprised at how many good tacos they produce. Pica on Columbia Road NW (202-518-0076) serves up a savory, braised barbacoa taco, not to mention a lengua one that may force you to reconsider your aversion to beef tongue. Pica’s lengua is cut into thick dices and slow-cooked until the texture is closer to foie gras than the chewy slabs so often associated with the meat; when topped with onions, cilantro, and just a drizzle of a jalapeño-based salsa, the taco is one lusty, multi-level bite.
Similarly, District Taco does one snack better than anyone else: Hoil’s chorizo-and-bacon breakfast taco possesses genuine crunch, provided by tiny crumbles of crispy bacon, which contrast perfectly with the fluffy yellow curds. But the chorizo plays a vital role here: It contributes a gentle spice and releases small pools of paprika-stained grease, adding both depth of flavor and aromatics to what often is a fairly bland bite. And just as important, the breakfast taco doesn’t require cilantro to complete it.
All three of Tomatillo’s meat tacos are worth sampling, particularly the barbacoa and carnitas, which rely on marinades and long, luscious braises to provide their succulence and understated flavor. One word of warning, though: Grau ladles his fresh salsas on thick, even the molten ones, like the roasted tomato habanero, which require a more restrained hand. As Mark Miller, the father of Southwestern cooking, wrote in his cookbook Tacos, “Mexicans understand that salsa is an accent, unlike Americans, who tend to have this bravado about loading up their tacos with the hottest salsa on the table.”
If I’ve discovered anything in my taqueria wanderings, it’s this: The higher the neighborhood’s socio-economic level, the lower the chances you’ll find a taco with real chew or gelatinousness or anything else that suggests an animal sacrificed its life for your meal. It’s as if protein textures are for the working class.
On one end of the spectrum, you have Oyamel and its tiny, three-bite tacos stuffed with a confit of this or stew of that, each as lush (and satisfying) as the next. On the other end of the spectrum, however, you have Taqueria La Placita in Hyattsville, a noisy four-year-old operation on Edmonston Road (301-277-4477) in which nose-to-tail cooking is just a way of life, not a culinary trend.
La Placita is owned by Javier Martinez, who’s a native of Puebla, Mexico, the birthplace of the al pastor taco. You’ve probably eaten al pastor tacos countless times. You’ve probably never tasted a real one: Your tortillas should be brimming with marinated pork roasted slowly on a spit, a technique borrowed from the Lebanese immigrants who introduced Puebla natives to shawarma in the 1930s. Martinez has a rotisserie at La Placita, right next to the griddle, where cooks shave thin slices of the lightly spiced pork into a pair of corn tortillas and (sometimes) top them with pineapple chunks, for a terrific sweet-and-savory bite.
If anything defines La Placita, other than its al pastor, it has to be the taqueria’s affection for variety cuts, that euphemistic term for the more unappetizing animal parts. Really, a meal at La Placita is a study in meat flavors and textures. The oreja (ear) is rich and gelatinous, with a pleasant cartilage crunch. The cueritos (pig skin) is not the fried pork rind variety, but a soft and unctuous treatment full of righteous pork flavor. The barbacoa is stringy and gelatinous and deeply rich. The cecina (salty beef, likely flank or skirt) is a slightly chewy bite in which the salting process intensifies the meat’s natural flavors. It’s like beef squared.
Each taco comes wrapped in two Escondido brand tortillas that the cooks heat on the griddle with a drizzle of oil, which adds small-but-important amounts of flavor and moisture to these puffy corn rounds. Each taco also comes sprinkled with diced onions and chopped cilantro, to which you can add your choice of radish slices, cucumber rounds, a squirt of lime, and one (or both) of the fiery salsas brought to your table. This, in short, is the true Mexican taco experience, right down to the blaring jukebox in the corner.