Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On the Road and Eating Tacos de Chicharron Prensado in Pasadena

"I want to take you to my favorite tacos of pressed chicharrones around here," is the loose translation of what our friend told us after she picked us up from the Los Angeles International Airport last week. To live in a town where you can say that is envious. A town where tacos, I believe, have been known to grow on trees. But there are many things about LA that are not enviable in the least, and I love Denver for what it is--and one of those is that it is not all that big. The downfall of course is I have never once picked someone up from the airport in Denver and said those words that our friend said so naturally that day.

Again, I readily sacrifice a few tacos here and there for my good living in my small-town, but fried-smashed-and-fried again pork skins is something of a fetish of mine. In hindsight, re-reading this post years down the road, I might think to myself that I should have replaced "fetish" with some other, less sexual and creepy word to describe my affinity for these pig hides, but I can't think of a better way to put it at the moment. In Denver I often enjoy this style of swine in my savory Salvadorean pupusas, and I always like it very much, but I would have to think hard back to some streetside vendor in Mexico City to think of a time that I had them scooped onto a warm corn tortilla and sprinkled with cilantro, onion and a spicy salsa.

Our friend lives in the relative quiet of Pasadena, not far, yet-oh-so-very-far--from the bustle of LA. "Taqueria" was not the first thing I had in mind when I booked our trip to Pasadena, much less ones that serve things like cabeza and chicarrones prensados. Yet there we were, just an hour or so from deboarding, ordering a plateful of not only steamy head meat and sizzling pork skins, but also more common taco meats like carnitas and chorizo con papas. Four of them and a drink for under six bucks.

Though sizzling, technically, they were not. In what I will chalk up to practicality for anticipation of a lunchtime rush, the meat, rather than being grilled to order was rather in warming trays behind the counter, not unlike some no-need-to-name burrito chain that us Denverites know oh-too-well.

Despite this school-lunch-counter-like service my chicharron tacos were wonderful. They packed a respectable amount of heat even without the very good red salsa, and were overflowing with pork flavor: Mushy, greasy and fried pork flavor in that order. I had two for good measure.

The cabeza in my opinion was even better than the chicharron. Likely because this already tender meat is served well is this hot-tray format. Whatever the case, it was damn good. The carnitas and chorizo con papa were not particularly memorable, but were good tacos nonetheless.

Out back was the Taquito Mexicano Taco Truck, somewhat of a notorious truck in the LA-area I later learned. I also hear that they grill to order, so that should by definition make it all even better.

I didn't have time to go taco hunting in LA--that wasn't the point of our trip at least. But the point clearly illustrated to me that day was that LA, as I have always known, has tacos oozing from its traffic-clogged, sun-drenched, palm-tree laden pores. And another point, or technically question: Does anyone have any recommendations for chicharron prensados in Denver? Please let me know. Please El Taquito Mexicano 2 on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cafe Chihuahua: Come For the Pumpkin Empanadas and Stay For a Meal Since You Made the Trip

The other day I found myself driving with a car full of fuss and though very near taco-laden region of South Federal and Evans, the thought of trying to eat tacos from a truck in 40 degree weather and trying to keep two surprisingly fast boys from being flattened by a passing car was not at all appealing. I don't mind the cold part myself, but unfortunately when toddlers are unhappy (and even when they aren't) they try their very best to make you (me) unhappy. Mine seem especially skilled at it. It was now snowing. So when we spotted the glow of Cafe Chihuahua against the darkening sky, we didn't hesitate to stop in.

If you grew up in Denver or pretty much any town that has a Mexican restaurant, there is a good chance that from the outside it looks at least a little like Cafe Chihuahua: adobe archways with wrought-iron bars and neon beer signs in every window all tucked away in the back of a small parking lot.
The menu is also much like you might imagine it: extensive--covering everything from grilled seafood to single orders of tacos--and of course, Mexican egg rolls. I am all for dishes like Mexican egg rolls, and when done right, the crispy won-ton wrapper is a perfect match for typical Mexican ingredients. These, however, were not off to a good start being completely unrecognizable as anything resembling an egg roll.

They looked as much like an egg roll as a baseball does a football. In fact, they weren't much smaller than a small football and their oblong shape and dense, bean-packed filling would make for an excellent projectile in a food fight or thrown up on stage during an event where someone on stage really needs a big splat of beans, rice and cheese in his face. If each audience member were given an order, say, at the recent presidential debate we just hosted, it would have been somehow even messier--and a whole lot more worth watching  But as far as an appetizer meant to be eaten, it was first: bigger than my entree, and second: much, much worse.

My entree was made up of two stuffed green chiles, battered and fried and filled with cheese. I am really starting to love New Mexican and Colorado chiles rellenos, especially around chile season, as the flavor of a Hatch chile beats rivals that of the typical Mexican Poblano. Plus not much is better that a good smothering in green chile, and the chile here at Chihuahua was definitely above average. The only complaint I had was that I asked for picoso and while there was some picante to it, it was certainly nothing noteworthy.

My wife ordered shrimp adobaba which was respectably spicy, though the sauce seemed to be mostly made up of the Tapatio table sauce. It was a little too vinegary and watery for me, though she seemed to enjoy it for the most part as she was craving something with shrimp.

She also had a tostada de ceviche which was piled high shrimp, octopus and other seafood miscellany cooked in lime juice. It could have been better if it were not so dry, but on a wintry night in land-locked Denver for three dollars and fifty cents, it did the trick.

The real prize was at the end when we were able to get our hands on two freshly baked pumpkin empanadas, that we greedily ate one in the car without sharing a crumb with our poor little boys. Though not warm, the made-from-scratch dough and sweet filling with wonderful, stringy pumpkin throughout was absolutely delicious.

Our experience at Cafe Chihuahua was exactly what we needed it to be: a respite from the cold, a place that wouldn't mind our kids and a decent meal of Colorado Mexican food.

Cafe Chihuahua on Urbanspoon

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