Sunday, February 21, 2010

Denver al Pastor Take 5: Tacos Tijuana

As is well-established by now (and maybe bordering on annoying for my long-time readers), is that I love tacos al pastor. For better or worse, they are the inspiration for me even deciding to publicly share my random thoughts about food online. I like to think, however paradoxical it may sound, that I am a connoisseur of all things pastor, starting with my first rule of true pastor: it must be roasted on a spit. I would also like to think that I have a sixth sense, as the saying goes, about finding pastor spits roasting in the open air. Or, if not a sixth sense, at least a combination of senses one and three, so that I become acutely aware of the smell and sound of open flame crackling marinated pork when in my immediate vicinity. There is nothing quite like it, and it has, for many years, been my obsession; so that is why I was at once shocked and smitten when, for my recent contest, a reader suggested Tacos Tijuana on 44th and Sheridan for it's fresh spit-roasted pastor under a tent in the parking lot out back.

What was shocking was that, while I don't often pass by this corner, I certainly have been in close enough proximity enough times over the last few years that my acutely refined pastor-sensing afferents should have been activated. Nevertheless, I was thankful and anxious to try it, and for that, this reader was duly awarded a debatably desirable and decidedly modest prize per the rules of aforementioned contest.

From the outside, Tacos Tijuana looked to me just like one of my taco mainstays, Taco Mex. Outside were white walls with red trim, and a big white tent erected under the yellow lights of the parking lot where the spit in question sat, dripping red juices while being roasted by a bright blue flame. My first impression was that of admiration, for this was an enormous spit of meat. I stopped for what seemed like a brief moment (but likely was closer to several minutes), in order to better study the layout and snap a few photos. The taquero, hard at work prepping for the night, looked up from his station and gave me a not unfriendly look that nevertheless said, "What are you doing? You gonna order some tacos?"

Because taqueros of pastor and I share a unique mental telepathy, I, without words, communicated to him that yes, I was going inside right now to order. I gave him a nod and although his face still read, "What the fuck?" I knew that he was really saying, "Welcome, make yourself at home here."

I stepped inside, where my wife and friends had already gone. Besides us, the place was empty. Two ladies were mopping the floor, and if it weren't for the taco man slicing and dicing out back, I would have thought the place was closed. We stepped up to the counter and were quickly helped by one of them. She was friendly enough, and became even friendlier when we proceeded to order in Spanish.

I went outside to hand in my ticket. Between three of us we were getting 16 tacos al pastor, and when the taco man went down the ticket it was clear to me that he was impressed by our appetites, though he didn't exactly show it as he casually put the receipt down and began to throw the tortillas on the flat-top. He had just finished grilling a batch of freshly sliced pastor (remember, they only do this in the US) and he proceeded to scoop out generous portions onto the tortillas.

"Con todo?" He asked. (FYI, my gringo friends, this is a useful Spanish phrase to know at a taco joint).

"Si," I responded, I always get my tacos with everything.

But everything to me means onion, cilantro and pineapple; so when he handed me the first paper plate of tacos, dripping with taco grease, I asked, "Y la piña?" Or, where is the pineapple?

Now here is where it became clear that this taquero and I had no real unspoken understanding of each other. Or even a spoken understanding for that matter, because he looked at me like I just told him I had a dead body in my trunk: a mixture of confusion, astonishment, mistrust and even some fear. He asked me to repeat myself, although he knew exactly what I said. "Piña," I said slowly and clearly. He just shook his head and stared blankly at me.

I too, was taken aback because true tacos al pastor have to have pineapple. There may be people that don't like it, or argue senselessly that it is not necessary, but then those people aren't talking about tacos al pastor. It's as simple as that. It's like arguing that you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich better without the peanut butter, but really all you want is jam on your toast. That doesn't make much sense, does it? Exactly.

I took it in stride but entered the restaurant a little defeated. My wife, who is from Mexico City (the birthplace of tacos al pastor), looked strangely at her plate too, and I told her there was no pineapple here, so there was no use asking or making a fuss.

The tacos were adequate. The pork was sliced thick, so it was juicy and tender; but it didn't have the good char and crisp that makes a perfect pastor. That being said, it was a good taco of marinated pork, and there are many things that are right about that. I finished my plate of six tacos in several minutes. It wasn't, however, an authentic taco al pastor in the great pastor tradition. Although, to be fair to this place, tacos al pastor get bastardized the moment you leave Mexico City, so it could be that this is some "authentic" recipe that the owner has from someplace like Tijuana.

All was not lost on this trip by any means. We also had a steak alambre in our midst that was one of the better ones I've had in Denver. Alambre, if you remember, is usually bell peppers, onions and meat grilled together with shredded cheese and served on a large plate with tortillas on the side. In perfect conditions the cheese melts into everything so that what results is a wonderfully sticky mess that can be scooped onto a tortilla and eaten as a taco. This was a rather ideal version of an alambre, and it beat out the tacos al pastor by a mile.

The tacos here cost 99 cents, so they are pretty small, and even after six I needed a couple more. I got the tongue and was pleasantly surprised by this well-prepared and tasty version. I would get this again if I returned.

Tacos Tijuana seems overall to be a solid little taco joint, and I want to again thank the reader who recommended it to me. It doesn't, however, have a great pastor, and by no means is it authentic to its Mexico City roots. And even though this may be on the bottom of the tacos al pastor I have written about so far in Denver, it did have some redeeming qualities, and for 99 cents you likely won't be disappointed.
Tacos Tijuana on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

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