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Archive for August, 2010

This week we travel deep into the heart of Oak Cliff to the neighborhood of Elmwood. Nestled around Cedar Creek is a picturesque community full of tree-lined streets, busy pocket parks, and small shops. Oliver Stone liked it enough to use it as a shooting location for his film Born on the Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise. It even looks pretty  from outer space.

But the real beauty of this neighborhood lies in my memory. It is the setting of my childhood. I rode my bike along those tree-lined streets, scraped my knees at the pocket parks, explored the pools and gullies created by Cedar Creek, and walked to get my hair buzzed once a month by Lonnie at his barber shop a few blocks down (more on him and his shop turned taqueria in a future post). I also had my first case of star-strucked-ness looking at pictures of my mother’s piano students alongside a costumed Tom Cruise.

I almost expected to see the dream car of my youth (a yellow or maybe white- funny how the mind forgets- 1970’s  Corvette Stingray) still parked at the gas station turned auto shop just up Ferndale from La Fondita. The small restaurant is not something I remember from my past. But its 11 years of  business  have given the small taqueria deep roots in this area.  The exterior is one of the most inviting we’ve seen with its bright yellow facade and landscaping of native flowers and shrubs.  We’re hoping the weather will cooperate and let us take a meal or two on the patio in a few weeks. Instead we made our way inside, where the welcoming atmosphere continued.

While we probably did not endear ourselves to the people whose meal we disturbed by opening the front door a little too zealously (it is a small dining room of about 7 tables so be careful on your way in), the staff and patrons were a very friendly crowd. I’m not sure why, but I immediately assumed many of the families eating in the restaurant were regulars. There was just something about their body language that signaled they were at ease, as if sitting at their kitchen table at home.

The owners, Victor and Reyna (who took our order), could be seen in action both in and out of the kitchen. The impressive menu boasts classic taco stand dishes alongside more elegant plates. We brought along some friends who ordered some great stuff: Caldo de Pollo and an item that can best be described as chicken fried chicken. The soup came out steaming hot with a side of rice and tortillas. It was full of chunks of white meat and whole vegetables; a bright orange carrot, silky potato, and zucchini squash, all cooked just through so as to save the delicate ingredients from turning to mush. The other plate held a thinly pounded chicken breast fried in a golden batter. The lightly seasoned batter was not at all greasy, saving a potentially heavy and filling dish from becoming tomorrows lunch.

“A” and I ordered a plate of 6 tacos for us and a bean and cheese sope for little “L”. Turns out she wanted some of the tacos, so “A” polished off her untouched sope. It was plate size, much larger than most we have found. And it was piled high with lettuce and deliciously salty crumbles of queso fresco.

The tacos were impressive all lined up in a row on our plate. Moving from left to right, we tried the lengua first. Always a favorite to end up a taco lineup, these tacos were also great in the lead off spot. Mouthwatering and simple, these tacos had “A” raving that she was back on the lengua taco wagon.

Next was the barbacoa- a total taco opposite. This taco perfectly married tender shredded meat with succulent bits of silky, melted fat. More often than not our barbacoa tacos too closely resemble Yankee pot roast or are overwhelmed by gobs of fat. La Fondita’s barbacoa was full of  richness without the icky mouthfeel that usually comes with overly fatty meat.

The next 3 tacos were a blur of grilled meaty chunks. We ordered the carne asada, another beef filling and a pork taco (update coming when I go back to look at the menu). The differences in the three were slight. The carne asada I believe had more charring on the meat while the other tacos had a piquant, spicy flavor. The pork taco and the non-asada beef taco came with grilled onions. Neither were visually, texturally, or flavorfuly distinguishable. Maybe I got two of the same taco, maybe not. I didn’t worry about it too much. Both were tasty, though too tough for “A’s” liking.

Our last taco was full of delicious pork al pastor. It was so good that we devoured it in a few bites, neglecting to take pictures. Our only complaint was that it could have been a little bit bigger…just because we liked it so much.

Complimenting our tacos was an incredible bright orange salsa. When the tacos came out, the salsa was not included. When I inquired if the kitchen had any more salsas besides the standard tomato based salsa that came with our chips the server was unsure of my ability to take the heat. Thankfully I convinced her I could handle it, but had my doubts when she reappeared with the glowing concoction in her hands. The spicy bite burned in the best way, slowly and in the back of the throat, sparing me from a scorched tongue. Make sure you ask for some.

By the end of our meal our wonderful work was done, proven by an empty plate. On our way out we chatted with the owners who were just sitting down to an after-the-lunch-rush-meal of bright red menudo. We talked a little about how much we enjoyed the food and they revealed a little bit about why it is so good. Victor told us they make the food “just like at home”, with nothing made to sit in a warming tray, no meats grilled up until we order it, no tortillas warmed until they are ready to hit the plate. It sure tasted that way. By the time we said our goodbyes, we realized what a shame it was to have to leave for home- we felt like we were already there.

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Taco Rico
4970 W. Illinois Ave, Dallas TX, 75211
No Phone Listed
Tacos – $.99
Sopes – $ 1.75
Coco Frio – $2.00
All Prices Cash Only!!

There was a time when “the outskirts of town” meant something. Maybe it still does in some regions of the world; maybe even parts of Texas. But around our town, the outskirts of the Metroplex might be an hour away across a half a dozen incorporated municipalities, each with its own outer limits. Our modern day outskirts neighbor outlet malls and antique shops and an abundance of Stepford-type cul-de-sac communities (“from the 120’s”) instead of bumping up against the edge of  the West, the Wilderness, the Wasteland. I can see this as progress in a sense, but I’m awfully tempted to romanticize the way things used to be (especially after reading Lonesome Dove for the first time this summer). And I doubt I am the only one.

For example, last month or so, I read a blog post discussing the boundary lines of Oak Cliff. Now, I understand that the internet is no place for forming consensus. But the responses varied so much that I wondered if they were purposefully recreating the Indian legend of the Blind Men and the Elephant . Some argued for a tiny area encompassing mostly just Kessler Park. Others stretched Oak Cliff far East, West, and South. It was clear that people were searching for the borderlands of the OC. The absence of an understanding of where our outskirts lie seemed to be very important to those responding to the post. And I can see why. To live without an understanding of where one town or area begins and one ends is confusing to both those living in such places and especially for those unfamiliar with our neighborhood.

The discussion was especially heated because it was based around a crime that was reported to have happened in Oak Cliff by local news media. The author of the original thread argued that this crime and many like it are mistakenly attributed to the OC. Of course I also get sick of people giving concerned looks after revealing that my wife and I make our home in our favorite part of Dallas, Oak Cliff. But it seems like an effort to exclude areas that might legitimately deserve their crime ridden reputation will not lead to much actual change in people’s perceptions of our community. Instead, positive interactions within our community are likely to have a greater impact than trying to get them to ignore our blemishes.

After reading the volley of suggestions as to what areas should be left out of Oak Cliff proper, some of which were well reasoned and based on past demarcations, I am unsure whether the taqueria we recently visited is part of Oak Cliff or an outpost in no-man’s land, just beyond our borders. Taco Rico, found inside the Valero gas station at the corner W. Illinois and Duncanville Road, sits on the outskirts of what I believe to be Oak Cliff. While others would say that the location is too far west to be considered a part of Oak Cliff, I would miss boasting about some of what I think of as Oak Cliff’s most treasured features if they were actually correct.

Can you imagine Oak Cliff without Mountain View College? The acres that make up the campus makes for a beautiful corner of Oak Cliff. The buildings have also been recently renovated, all for the purpose of bettering the lives of all sorts of people. From high schooler’s taking college credit to retirees taking continuing education classes, the students of Mountain View College are a welcomed presence in the cliff.

Just north of Mountain View lies La Reunion. Located in the woods between Davis and Jefferson, La Reunion strives to serve the community through programs that promote the arts. Just one of the ways La Reunion is serving Oak Cliff is through a mentoring program called Art Chica’s is actively involved in local high schools, pairing local artists with under served girls in our community. When this artistic organization first came to Oak Cliff, we welcomed them and their mission to our neighborhood.

These are just two examples of cool inhabitants of the western outskirts of Oak Cliff. Instead of leaving these places to be claimed by some neighboring area it would be better to include them and all that comes with these areas for Oak Cliff. Of course this can be done mentally by changing the map in your mind. But the best way to do it is physically, with your presence. Take a jog around the Campus or a tour of La Reunion’s woods. And when it comes to restaurants, with your patronage will let them know your glad to be their neighbor.

I understand if you have not made it to Taco Rico yet. There really is no reason to stop at the Valero station in which it is housed other than the fact that it is one of the only gas stations in this part of the OC. The place is unremarkable, not run down, but just…blah. Not a lot of flash. And the gas is always a little bit more expensive than other places. Except for the new signs advertising $1 Tacos de Trompo, I would have continued passing by this place for years to come.

I’m glad they got those signs.

The menu is basic but balanced, with mostly tacos and tortas but other specialties like sopes, caldo, and hamburgers. A few signs make sure patrons know the establishment is cash only before ordering. But there’s no need to make a large withdrawl at $1 per taco. While I love finding cheap tacos, I sometimes wonder about the quality of the food I am getting. For some reason, I expect $2 tacos to be better than their $1 brethren.

No reason to wonder at Taco Rico. We got 4 quality tacos and a chicken sope for about 6 bucks. From the first glance of the tacos in the to go box (we could have pulled up to the small bar stools n front of the small television set beaming in a soccer match instead of getting our order to go), I saw some good signs that the tortillas were homemade and fresh. I’m not sure there is a scientific way of proving a quality tortilla from a pre-packaged stale one without busting into a restaurant’s kitchen, but there’s something about the way a tortilla crisps up without becoming brittle also retaining a chewy, soft center in the 1 or 2 millimeters such a flat bread allows between sides that speaks volumes. I think you know what I’m talking about: you can just tell.

The lengua taco was a relief. After a few bad lengua tacos (one greasy, one dry) the clean flavors and fluffy, airy texture of Taco Rico’s lengua put a smile on our faces. The same thing happened with the al pastor. We almost swore off ordering tacos al pastor if we could not see the trompo or spit that the pastor meat was roasting on. Lately the pastor tacos we tasted were too sweet or too sour and often grainy in texture. Taco Rico does not have a trompo but the exotic spices (possibly cinnamon or clove- “A” said it tasted like Christmas) were a perfect match for the pork and left us craving more. A completely different flavor came from the barbacoa taco which boasted simple seasonings but complex flavors from the beef. The fajita taco was not the most tender I’ve had but the flavor was classic: strong salt and pepper with just the right amount of heat added without hiding the flavor of the beef.

“A” has fallen in love with the crunch of sopes and the one she got from Taco Rico satisfied her close to weekly habit. The chicken was well seasoned (just the right amount of spiciness) and tender which is all we really ask of chicken. The crisp lettuce and ripe tomato were a good sign that the taqueria uses fresh ingredients (and I don’t mean “fresh” in the same way that the cellophane wrapped Honey Bun advertises itself as “bakery fresh”). Melted cheese, refried beans, and a slice of avacado added layers of richness. A dousing of salsa and thick crema helped intensify the flavors of the sope which was a great deal at $1.75. There was enough for “A” and “L” to share. But alas, I was left out of the feeding frenzy that made the sope disappear before I realized what had happened. Next time.

While we loved this little taqueria, the real treasure lies just a few paces away at a small fruit stand. We saw a small sign for “Cocos Frios” and wondered what it was describing. Perhaps a delicious coconut dessert, possibly a creamy paleta dotted with flakes of coconut shavings. What we found was even better.

Cocos Frios means just that: cold coconuts. Francisco, the man who runs the stand, reached into a large cooler to pull out two coconuts in all their hairy glory. He promptly placed them on a small wooden stump, something that would be used as a chopping block for firewood. If firewood is what you need to chop to keep warm in the winter, the summer equivalent is chopping cold coconuts to cool you down.

Just one swift movement of Francisco’s machete opened up a small crack in the coconut’s rock hard exterior which he then pryed open into a hole, cleaned up, and placed a straw into.

What we then tasted was unlike anything we’ve ever had. The clear liquid is slightly sweet, with a hint of the nuttiness of coconut flesh. It is the primeval Slurpee bringing instant refreshment and relief from the summer heat. For $2, a coco frio is a cheap way to escape to a tropical island. And delightful way to wash down a great taco.

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