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Archive for October, 2009

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My wife came up with the idea first. “I’m gonna start a blog about the real Oak Cliff,” she announced one evening . After a brief discussion about this statement (What sparked this desire? Driving down Jefferson Ave; What do you mean by real? The people walking down Jefferson Ave; And possibly the most important question: Whatcha gonna name it?), we both realized that a project like this would be perfect for us…if by us you meant two people with lots of time and money on their hands and little other responsibilities. Unfortunately, that does not in any way describe “us”.

So to the back burner it went.

Until one day I came up with an excuse idea, to write about food. Also inspired by driving around our neighborhood, I came home and proudly told my wife, “I’m gonna start a taco blog.” To which she promptly replied, “Hey, that was my idea!” She was both right and wrong. It was her idea to engage our community, to write about our interactions with neighbors and store owners. She is that type of person: quick with a smile, easily connecting with people, listening to their stories and telling her own. These are characteristics I admire in her, mainly because I do not possess them. I wanted to interact with tender beef, spicy salsa, and homemade tortillas, not with store owners and shop keeps. But writing about just food soon gets too technical, haughty, or just boring.

So its a good thing we do this together, because we just found a place with both great food and  great people creating that food.

El Tizoncito recently took over an old Starbucks close to our house and has a different feel than most places we have or will visit. Its interior is new and colorfully modern providing a warm and bright environment in contrast to the cold wet weather that we have had recently.

The inviting surroundings were matched by Leo, the generous and welcoming owner of the taqueria, who sat us at the bar closest to the open kitchen. Before we could even settle we were handed glasses of horchata (a refreshing milk and rice drink seasoned with cinnamon) and two complimentary tacos al pastor. We watched as Leo skilfully sliced the meat off the pork roasting on a spit just feet in front of us. Tacos al pastor are filled with slowly roasted meat, usually pork, cooked on a vertical spit (reminiscent of something you’d find in a greek restaurant or kosher deli). This meat was highly seasoned, sliced paper thin, and both crsip and tender. The meat is roasted barely an inch away from an open flame so parts of it get charred and crisp while others just baste in their own juices.  On the side were the typical toppings of cilantro and onion. However, a bit of chopped pineapple was a surprising addition but welcomed one. Delicious! Before we could finish there we were also asked to try a complimentary house margarita, made with tamarind. This combination was magical, adding another layer to the sweet/tart flavors of a typical lime margarita. Definitely worth a try.

While we ordered a few different tacos off the menu it was obvious that al pastor is the showcase of this taqueria though Leo told us they also add special menu items on the weekends, including lamb barbacoa. “A” loved the pollo con queso and the chuleta (pork chop) was meaty and a perfectly paired with the pineapple. I piled on the salsa which were very mild and fresh. We chatted with Leo as we ate and he was eager to tell us his dreams for the taqueria and about its beginnings. He has overcome quite a bit (from failed buisness partners to extortion and kidnapping!!) but was optimistic about the taqueria’s future. The restaurant business is tough but we are certainly rooting for Leo and El Tizoncito.

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Aside from Fuel City (named Texas Monthly’s Best Taco in Texas)  Taqueria El Si Hay may be the most popular “hole in the wall” taco place in Dallas. Google it and a slew of articles and reviews pop up. Its proximity to the popular Bishop Arts district and Gloria’s (an Oak Cliff landmark way before any “district” was thought up) has given it legs to jump into the consciousness of those living north of the Trinity River. Now its new neighbor across the street  Bolsa (what may be its gastronomic polar opposite) has become a trendy spot to get premium food at premium prices (delicious, but three-dollar-signs pricey). So, I can see why this stand has been singled out by many in Dallas (at least those with a presence on the internet) as THE go-to taco stand for authentic tacos. But does it deserve the attention? Is this just the culinary equivalent of having a “insert minority of any kind” friend? Do those who spend most of their money in Uptown or Addison really have it right when they call the barbacoa “fantastic“, and the chicken “PHENOMENAL” (emphasis all theirs)?

Bodies of water and restaurant districts aside, Taqueria El Si Hay makes a great lengua taco! We’ve also tried their steak and fajita beef tacos, but the lengua stands out. The meat for this taco comes from beef tongue, which is typically slowly simmered or roasted in order to ensure tenderness. Its pretty gross in its pre-cooked state (mostly because its roughly the size of my arm…who knew?!). But when put between a tortilla and topped with cilantro, onions, and salsa the result is spectacular, comparable to brisket in texture and appearance. Light and tender, I (D) could eat at least a half dozen of these and not feel stuffed or over greased. On one occasion the corn tortilla was more greasy than the meat (kinda a downer) but most recently I ordered both corn and  flour tortillas and both were right on. The flour tortilla melted in the mouth in perfect unison with the meat, chopped onion providing a crunchy counter balance to the richness. The salsa verde was not very spicy but added a tangy flavor that was good.

This place is popular with people of all ages, shapes, and shades and we are pleased that it has become a sort of “spokes-stand” for the greater Oak Cliff area. The parking lot only holds about 6 cars and when I last visited a 7th and 8th car boxed me in for a good 10 minutes. But with a to-go box of one of Dallas’ best tacos in hand, that was just fine with me.

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Our next review will be up tomorrow.  The following is excerpted from chef Rick Bayless’ Mexico One Plate at a Time. This book is full of beautiful stories, pictures, and recipes tagged as either a Traditional or Contemporary take on a staple of Mexican cooking.

After reading this intro, we can’t wait to get out there and see what our neighborhood has to offer! We hope to find our perfect taco, too!

The spirit of that pull-up-and-eat culture lives on today in the taquerias of Mexico. Midmorning when hunger strikes or late at night when all restaurants and cafeterias close, you can find a neighborhood taqueria- be it a makeshift stand in a doorway or a hundred seater. Plainness is de rigueeur, illuminated by unblinking naked bulbs. Perfectly woven into layers, brash teenagers, bankers, and politicians- gather for bitefuls of seared meat wrapped in soft tortillas sparked with hot chile….

When I think of great tacos with fillings off the griddle or grill, my mind wanders to a little hole in the wall somewhere in northern Mexico (I can’t even remember what city, its been so long ago) where there was a glowing bed of hot coals over which perched a thick iron grate or griddle searing a smoky char into the edges thin sliced meat. The well-done meat (that may suprise you) was chopped into small pieces and rolled into a pair of hot thin corn tortillas.Well-seared crusty meat is essential as are fresh corn tortillas. A tangy salsa shot through with the earthy fire of roasted chile completed my perfect taco.

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Taqueria Michoacan

 

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Beef Fajitas…the porterhouse steak of the Tex-Mex menu. If ordered, be prepared for some DIY action and to hog your section of the table with at least 3 seprate platters for meat (on a sizzling cast iron skillet), tortillas (flour), and toppings (yellow cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, and guacamole if your at a ‘fancy’ place). The fajita is the pinnacle of Tex-Mex cooking and is about as authentic as Velveeta and RoTel. So why order a fajita taco from a taco stand? Was I scared of ordering the wrong thing, clinging to the familiarity of the word ‘fajita’? I don’t think so…I ordered the fajita taco because I did not see an option for a “:Taco al Carbon” on the menu/wall of the building. Fajita meat closely resembles beef cooked “al carbon”. It is usually a slab of steak, sometimes skirt, cooked over an open flame or coals, sliced pretty thick and placed on a tortilla with minimal toppings. What I got from Taqueria Michoacan was nothing like this.

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What I got was a delicious and beefy, spiced with lots of black pepper, the meat chopped thin so as to allow the taco to basically melt in your mouth. The side of cabbage, cilantro, and tomato added the perfect amount of freshness and crunch, and it was nice that the cook did not assume I wanted these toppings on my taco…I guess I could not escape the DIY ethic of the fajita, even at this tiny taqueria.

Taqueria Michoacan is on a busy strip of Clarendon in Oak Cliff. Their selection is a little bit of everything that should be offered by a small food stand, mostly one handed meals with a few specialty items. The girl ahead of me ordered snow cones for a car load of family while the patio was occupied by an old man sipping a bottle of Mexican Coke. The patio seems to always be hosting someone, even late at night, as this place does not close until 10 or 11. The lady who took my order at the window also cooked up my taco and served it to me in a small basket which indicated that my Spanish is not quite up to snuff. I wanted it to-go but the language barrier was not insurmountable since I at least got what I ordered. I quickly asked how to say “To-go” in Spanish and she obliged my request with both a translation (“para llevar”) and a Styrofoam box. After a sampling of two sauces (salsa verde and a spicier red sauce) I was off,  joining my wife and napping 6 month old in the car on our way to a satisfying Sunday afternoon.

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Crispy Taco vs.

Crispy Taco vs.

Crispy Shell. Ground Beef. McCormick Seasoning. Iceburg Lettuce. Cheddar Cheese. Pace Picante.

When combined, do these ingredients make a taco?

More a product of American mechanical ingenuity than culinary creativity, the taco as we know it was invented around the same time as patents for an “Automatic Corn Tortilla Fryer” (“Automatic” in the 50’s = “iBlank”  in the 00’s) .  While we have all enjoyed the satisfying crunch of a crispy taco with all the ingredients mentioned above its easy to go wrong when you begin prepping a meal by opening a box of 12 pre-baked shells wrapped in plastic and stuffed with cardboard, hoping that only one or two come out cracked or broken.  This cannot be the full meaning of the word “taco”…nor can “Taco Night” (a phrase that should send your mouth to full blown salivary gland overload) continue to be thrown into a repertoire of weeknight meals who’s sole goal is satiating stomachs and not stimulating mouths to savor.

My wife and I are passionate about our food, but we are not tacovangelists. The goal of this blog is not to save souls from taco hell (get it), but instead is birthed out of necessity.

Just a few blocks to our South lie a half dozen taco stands, taquerias, and mini-markets all occupying each corner on an eighth-of-a-mile stretch between two stop signs. To the East. 4-5 more. Same story West. North of our home suffer the impoverished souls who must do with only 2 taquerias and 1 grocer within walking distance.  Therefore a more systematic way of experiencing the opulence of our surroundings had to be developed. This blog is that systematized framework for experiencing the comida sencilla y rica that is the taco.

Taco de Maiz con Fajita

Created from traditions passed down through generations yet evolving each time skillet touches stovetop this food is utilitarian in its final formulaic form of starch encapsulating protein yet the combination of flavor and texture has the ability to jolt the casual diner to attention, filling senses with aromatics, fresh and crisp; spices, smokey and sinus-clearing; and meat, with layers of flavors developed quick over coals or roasted patiently over hours.  Because of this spectrum of potential experiences, we will not attempt to rate our findings, just report and compare what people are doing with such a simple formula to make their little corner of the culinary world worth visiting. We hope you join us!

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