Sunday, February 1, 2015

I Ate a lot of Food in Mexico, But The Best Taco in the World?

Once again I was back in Mexico City and was literally overwhelmed with good food. Much of it this time around was of the homemade variety, as we jumped from one family affair to another--and even made a road trip around Central Mexico. The following are some highlights:

The first plate was an alambre to end all alambres from the semi-famous Tacos Copacobana of Southern Mexico City, my wife's family's go-to taco stop. Good alambres are hard to find in Denver, though I'm not sure why, as it is a really simple mix of chopped taco meat (in this case pastor), bell peppers, onion, and a couple meat essentials like bacon and salchichas (hot dogs). It is all grilled on a flat top with copious amounts of cheese until it forms a massive, delicious blob that is meant to be pulled apart in sections and rolled into tacos. Besides being simply incredible, this Copacabana version was enormous. I think I could have wrapped it over my equally enormous head (hat size 7 5/8-- I mean I have a really big dome) and wore it like a helmet: A greasy, delicious helmet that would protect me from being healthy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of what is good about food from Mexico City was the next dish. A delicate, complex mole from Azul Condesa, one of four beautiful restaurants in the D.F. under the "Azul" name by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Chef Muñoz does brilliant job keeping the storied heritage of Mexican cuisine alive and thriving with minimal gimmickry and clear reverence for what is one of the world's truly great culinary heritages-- if not the greatest. 

I had a mole with roots in Oaxaca. It was black as the night but not anything like a typical bitter chocolate mole negro that might come to mind. No, the base of this mole was the ash of burnt Chile Chilhuacle. And like all great moles, it was full of paradox: while there was a clear taste of ash, nothing tasted burnt. And though after each bite was swallowed I could grind bits of ash between my teeth, the texture was smooth on the palette. It was incredibly subtle for how clearly complex it was, and had completely different tastes with each other food item on the plate: the beef, the grilled veggies, or the little chochoyones. Although a second trip to his restaurant proved disappointing, this was among the best plates of food I've ever eaten. 

We also took a road trip and stopped in the town of Leon, Guanajautao. You will probably never travel to Leon. It is most famous for being the leather and shoe capital of Mexico, and besides that there is at least one big car factory nearby. It reminds me a little of Detroit maybe for that reason, though the Leon GM plant continues to boom (ouch! sorry Detroit). If I have now sparked a yen in you to travel to Leon, you would not be disappointed at all if upon your arrival you stayed in the Hotel Hotson, which despite its hilarious and awkward name, is a top-notch hotel that has a low-key restaurant tucked in the back serving dynamite food. I was ready to hate the dish I ordered for being so outwardly wrong, and even though I tried to find something else to order, once I saw it on the menu I knew I would get it: Lasagna de Mole.

It was quite simple: lasagna noodles layered with shredded chicken and queso Oaxaca, all bathed in copious amounts of mole Poblano. My picture makes it look rather awful, and even without the blurriness of my photo, it wasn't much to look it. It might be best described as a mound. A mound with cheese and a single roasted tomato. It took my palette several bites to adjust to the texture of lasagna and the taste of pasta without a tomato sauce; and alternatively to rich mole without a crisp onion or a fried tortilla. I almost passed it off to my wife who had a enviable plate of enchiladas with mole de pipian, but when my feeble brain caught on to what this chef had brilliantly done I absolutely loved it. All lasagna should have mole. All of it.

We had barbacoa a couple times during this trip but one stop was notable as it is often mentioned as the best barbacoa in all of Mexico. Being the best barbacoa in all of Mexico is a lot like being the best sushi in Japan. That is, you might as well come out and call it the best in the world. And while calling anything the "best in the world" is essentially guaranteeing that it won't ever be the best at anything, this so-called title was laid upon Barbacoa Santiago by a bunch of food bloggers, so there is pretty much no credibility to begin with and therefore nothing to worry about. 

Were they the best tacos in the world? Of course not, simply because there is no such thing. But they are worth driving out of your way for if you are ever anywhere near them. In fact, they are somewhat conveniently located on a busy highway that leads north from Mexico City to Queretero.  Barbacoa Santiago was just one of dozens of giant roadside truck-stop sized food stands on the highway and could be easily overlooked. But unlike any truck stop I have ever known, these folks pit-roast whole lambs wrapped in banana leaves each day and serve them on fresh, fat, house-made tortillas alongside  fiery hand ground molcajete salsas. The best barbacoa is rich and fatty, simple and satisfying. On a chilly and rainy afternoon, the Barbacoa at Santiago's warmed my soul. It really was perfect. Even if you've never had barbacoa before, you would take one bite of these tacos and know that everything was done with the highest degree of care and quality. It's the kind of taco that reminds you how truly great a taco can be. 

So that's the best of it. From a dirty, street-style alambre (that actually did get my kid pretty sick I think), to fine dining with moles, to the best taco in the world a perfect taco. Here's to another year of good eating. 

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