The inspiration for this blog, and for me chasing down good food in Denver or wherever I am, goes way back to the first times I had Tacos al Pastor in Mexico City. Since then, I have had a new appreciation for food of all kinds, but it always seems to come back to this.
Picture this: Mexico City. 24 million people. Bright lights, night sky cloudy and glowing orange, cool air and slight mist of a rainy afternoon now past; car splashing through puddles with my Chilanga wife at the wheel, expertly weaving in and out of traffic while laughing away on her cell phone as only she can do. Then we suddenly u-turn and slow down so as to be coached into a parking spot some three inches longer than our car by the ubiquitous guy on the street who is there to “watch” your car.
We are here. And there it is. Our evening destiny. Contrasted with the otherwise dark night, under a singular swinging light bulb, through an opening in a grimy semi-transparent canopy: a glorious upside-down cone of red-marinated pork on a spit being expertly turned, charred, sliced and loved (yes, loved) by a man whose knife skills would rival that of any trained classical chef in the world. But instead of slaving away in some boring and dry 3-star hotel restaurant, he stands here in just one of what must be millions of taco joints in this city. With proud red stains on his mostly white apron, he is sharpening his knife and bantering with the regulars who circle him and his altar of pork with casual reverence. Flames are shooting from cinder blocks behind the spit, while conically stacked pork loins artfully arranged rotate in place and a pineapple skewered through the top, drips lovely juices all over.
We enter the plastic, tent-like canopy that covers the restaurant’s exterior and extends it almost into the street. We sit facing our pleasure at a small wooden table with napkins, salt, limes, green and red salsa. We welcome the relative warmth of being so close to the flame of the rotating spit in the otherwise cool night. And the smell is amazing. I glance at the laminated menu on the table out of habit then make eye contact with the taco man himself.
“Buenas… seis tacos al pastor con todo, por favor.” Six tacos, with everything.
“Tres para mi,” chimes in my wife, who also has a love of pastor but in a much saner, reserved and somehow sadder way (sometimes, for example, she orders steak tacos, but I still love her).
“Y dos Victorias.” I add in.
He throws down the tortillas to warm and immediately goes to work. It is a thing of beauty. He takes his large knife, sharpens it skillfully while looking around, barks our beer order to a waitress, smiles. Winks. He is king here. He knows it. All the other taco cooks are behind the counter on the inside, slaving away on other, lesser meats, and quesadillas, alambres, even chicken. Here our man, glowing– he is now, spurred into action, actually glowing in his own greatness– puts down his sharpener, grabs a warm tortilla from the comal, turns the spit to where the newly crisped pork awaits his touch and gracefully goes to work.
In a matter of seconds he has sliced paper thin strips of pork. “Fffffpp, fffffpp, fffffpp,” from the spit, and as they slide off they all land squarely on the tortilla in his other hand several inches away from the spit itself. Meat never touching hand. Then reaching with the knife up to the top in quick strokes, “fffp, ffp, ffp”, the pineapple flies off, is airborne, and like there was a magnetic attraction (and there likely is), like there was no other place it could end up, it comes to rest on top of the pork; and harmony and balance come momentarily to the universe (or at least to me and my tacos). Then in a matter of 40 seconds or so, eight more just like it.
Great skill is before me, and I recognize it although I maybe admire this man more than I should. Regardless, I take it in. Then waking me from my amorous gaze the plastic plate slaps down in front of me. Red pork, yellow pineapple, green cilantro and white onion artfully balanced on the light brown canvas that is the tortilla. A real masterpiece. In the pork hall of fame (that should be opening soon I think) this would hang proudly alongside bacon, Serrano ham and other pork classics. I close my eyes and breathe in the steam. Is there any smell quite like this? Tangy, spicy, sweet, sharp, smoky, porky and lovely. OK. First bite. It’s been too long…
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