My heart is racing. My hands are shaking.
I’ve been throwing back multiple beers 3.2 kilometres above sea level in a tiny cantina in Mexico City, so that probably has something to do with it. But my feverish state can also be explained by the taco I’m struggling to hold. It’s astonishing – a taco that makes me wonder what it is I’ve been eating my entire life and calling a taco.
The tortilla, made from fresh masa – a dried-corn dough – and lifted moments ago from a griddle, is as rough and hillocky as the surface of a Neapolitan pizza. It tastes like roasted corn. The beef, cooked for five hours, is so tender you could spread it.
The three salsas on the table are so complex and intense that I feel as if I’m tasting liqueurs made from vegetables.
“It’s good, no?” says my gustatory guide, Alejandro Escalante. He’s a noted taco scholar (his book, La Tacopedia, is now available in both Spanish and English editions), and he also happens to own the joint.
In response, I curse all tacos that have come before this one.
Escalante laughs. Easy for him: in Mexico City, great tacos are everywhere. You can find them in high-end restaurants and street carts. Kids zip through the city on bikes, tacos sitting atop woven baskets mounted on the handlebars. The taco is a fixture of nearly every meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s almost inescapable. And you don’t want to escape it.
What you do want to escape is the so-so taco landscape in Australia. I wish I were just talking about fast-food tacos. If you do happen to find a restaurant that uses corn tortillas rather than the flour variety, chances are they’re dry, flat, tasteless Frisbees. Salsas are often watery and bland. And while upmarket tacos at trendy Mexican restaurants may be more refined, they’re not much more satisfying.
The taco, for Escalante, is the embodiment of centuries of Mexican history, culture and culinary tradition. But when pressed, he will reduce the transcendental taco to a trio of things: the tortilla, the filling, the salsa.
“There are three parts to the taco,” he says. “I call that the holy trinity of the taco. If all three parts are great, then you have greatness.”
Perfectly Charred Meat
2 dried guajillo chillies, stems removed
2 garlic cloves
1/2 medium white onion, roughly chopped
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1 whole clove
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
6 black peppercorns
500g trimmed pork shoulder, cut into 1cm-thick slices
1/ In a large skillet, heat the oil on medium. Add the dried chillies and cook until sizzling and aromatic, about 1 minute. Remove and set them aside.
2/ In the same skillet you used to cook the chillies, add the tomato, onion, garlic, and peanuts. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion turns translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Strain out the solids, reserving the oil, and allow them to cool.
3/ In a blender or food processor, add the reserved chillies and strained solid ingredients, plus 5 Tbsp of the reserved cooking oil. Blend, gradually adding up to 1/2 cup of water until the mixture is thick but still spoonable. Season with salt to taste. Makes 1 3/4 cups
The salsa should keep in your refrigerator for up to a week. Any leftovers also work well as a blanket for enchiladas or as a marinade for grilled chicken or pork.
1/2 cup canola oil
1 dried ancho chilli, stemmed and seeded
1 dried guajillo chilli, stemmed and seeded
2 dried chillies de arbol, stemmed and seeded
1 tomato, diced
1/2 medium white onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup unsalted peanuts
1/ In a medium pot, add 2 cups water along with the chillies, garlic, onion, oregano, clove, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Add a big pinch of salt. Bring everything to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer and cook 15 more minutes.
2/ Allow the mixture to cool and then transfer it to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Strain and season with salt to taste. Now pour it into a zip-top bag and add the meat. Let it marinate in the fridge for at least 3 hours.
3/ Preheat your grill to direct, high heat. Remove the meat from the marinade and grill until well seared and charred on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Allow the pork to rest 5 minutes.
4/To serve, chop the grilled pork, divide it among your tortillas, and top with chopped white onion and coriander. Makes 8 servings
2 cups masa harina
1/4 tsp sea salt
11/2 cups water
1 large ziplock bag, cut along both side seams
1/ In a bowl, mix the masa harina and salt. Then add up to 1 1/2 cups water until the dough is a soft putty - moist but not wet, compact but still pliable.
2/ Work the dough - push, fold, repeat - until it's smooth, about 5 minutes. Pinch off 12 pieces (each about the size of a golf ball) and cover them with a towel. Place a piece on one side of the zip-top bag. Fold the other side over the dough and press firmly until you form a thin, even pancake about 15cm in diameter. Remove and set aside, covered. Repeat with the remaining dough.
3/ Heat a cast-iron skillet on medium. When it's hot, add a dough disk, pressing it firmly onto the surface. Cook until the edges lift, about 1 minute; flip and cook 1 minute. Flip again, pressing the tortilla into the pan, and cook until puffed, 30 seconds or so. Transfer to a plate and season with salt. Repeat. Serve immediately or, to reheat, wrap them in foil and warm in a 120 degrees Celsius oven. Makes 12 tortillas