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Remembering Jon Rowley and Small Good Things

John Rowley, the man who taught me how to shuck oysters, passed away on October 4, 2017. I will always remember him. He forged his zeal for life out of an enormous sadness.

Photo by Kate McDermott

Here’s a story about him:

Sex, Death & Oysters, Chapter Nine: Will Shuck for Food

…It was a chilly overcast day, and we hadn’t gone far before Rowley pointed out a two-story house built in the 1920s that was much fancier than any of the others in the neighborhood. “That’s Raymond Carver’s house,” he said.

I didn’t remember Raymond Carver’s short stories right away. But Rowley reminded me about Carver’s bleak strain of fiction and the spiritual emptiness of the people who inhabited it. After a miserable alcoholic life, Carver had spent his last ten years at the house in Port Angeles, staying sober and writing stories about the shabby lives of hopeless middle-class families in a semi-rural landscape not unlike Port Angeles, Washington.

Rowley identified with Carver. When I asked him about his ethnicity, he told me he didn’t have one. He grew up in Alaska and Oregon with two alcoholic parents, he said. When he left home, he became a commercial fisherman. For ten years, he spent summers fishing in Alaska and winters bumming around Europe, mostly France. He had bouts with depression and heavy drinking.

In the mid-1960s, Rowley’s first daughter was hit by a drunk driver and died a slow death. He and his wife moved to Portugal and had another daughter. But the marriage didn’t withstand the tragedy.

Rowley credits the passage about oysters from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir of 1920s Paris, with changing his life. He was intrigued by the idea that something you ate could give you a positive outlook.

Rowley told R.J. Apple Jr. that after reading the passage in his shabby Paris hotel room, he resolved to “eat lots of oysters, as many as I could afford, and make it my quest to learn about oysters and how they are cultivated, distributed and consumed.”

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
— A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

He started by getting on the Metro and spending the last of his money on a feast of oysters and wine at Le Dome, he told me. When he returned in subsequent years, he educated himself, visiting oyster farms, oyster distributors and oyster restaurants all over France. Oysters gave his life a purpose.

When he started working with oyster marketers, Rowley was a purist who wouldn’t back down from his version of the gospel. When another Washington State oyster entrepreneur named Bill Webb started cultivating European flat (O. edulis) oysters and selling them as “Belons” in the early 1980s, Rowley was outraged. “I told him, you can’t call them Belons, because the Belon River is in France.”

The two men were asked to speak about oysters at various educational events, and their talks invariably ended up becoming debates. Eventually Bill Webb started calling his American-raised European flat (O. edulis) oysters “Westcott Bay Flats,” and the two became friends.

As a goodbye gift, Rowley gave me a copy of Where I’m Calling From, Selected Stories by Raymond Carver. Some time later, I picked up the book and read the story called “A Small Good Thing.” In the story, a mother goes to a bakery and orders a birthday cake for her son. The little boy is hit by a car on the way to school and is taken to the hospital, where he goes into a coma. The baker keeps calling, angry that no one picked up the cake. In the end, the boy’s mother and father go to the bakery in the middle of the night and confront the abusive baker. The man is chagrined and apologizes profusely. He sits the couple down and gives them hot cinnamon rolls and coffee.

“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small good thing in a time like this,” he said. The resemblance to Rowley’s tragedy was uncanny, and so was the small good thing of eating something as a way of coming back to life.

Just before I departed Port Angeles, Rowley took me for a ride in the car. We parked at Ocean View Cemetery, which is located on a grassy cliff high above the gray waters of the Strait of Juan De Fuca. We got out and walked around in the light drizzle. Over the cliff, I could see the shoreline of Vancouver Island in the distance.

In one of the rows of the cemetery, Rowley pointed out the low dark stone that marked Raymond Carver’s grave. While we stood there, he produced two oysters and a small bottle of Jack Daniels with an inch left in the bottom from the pockets of his Goretex coat. He spilled a little oyster liquor on Carver’s grave as he shucked. We toasted Carver with oysters and warming slug of whiskey. Then we set the oyster shells and the empty bottle on the grave beside Carver’s name and took a picture.

London Taco Tour: Top 5 Wrap Up

London is now a taco town! Over the last two years, some excellent taquerias and innovative Mexican restaurants have opened. And tacos have been deemed “the food trend of 2017” by some London food bloggers.

So we sent our correspondent, Julia Walsh, to London on a taco tour. We’ll be posting her London Taco Tour updates on Taco Tuesdays!

Here is her latest report: 

Over the last few weeks I’ve detailed the stops along the London Taco Tour, and have to say that I’m really impressed. Every one of the places I tried was a memorable experience and brought something delicious to the table.

It’s been very difficult to try and rank them from least to most favorite, because each of them was good for it’s own reason and offered a unique spin on what they were doing. I’ve based my decision on flavors, execution, and ambiance.

Top 5 Taquerias on the London Taco Tour:

Number 5: El Pastor

El Pastor’s alluring outdoor dining area in the thick of London and its selection of exotic Mexican libations make it a wonderful spot to grab a few tacos and a drink. The tacos are delicious, but unfortunately the day I went both the pork and the chicken were pretty dry, even accounting for the long cook time. I still recommend you try both the al pastor and chicken tacos, but maybe order some extra salsa.

Click here to read the full review of El Pastor.

 

Number 4: Mole

Mole provides an upscale taco experience from their location in SoHo. I haven’t been by in the daytime, but the restaurant has a relaxed club vibe at night. The menu offers exciting and interesting combinations, but I didn’t find it to be consistent across the board. The pulpo taco – a daily special – was an exceptional experience, but the highly anticipated shortrib taco left me feeling shorted on flavor.

Click here to read the full review of Mole.

 

Number 3: Taqueria

Taqueria feels like a smiling neighbor, ready to help watch the kids or offer a beer. The restaurant is family friendly but just cool enough for young adults and couples to grab a bite and a drink. Despite their locally sourced ingredients and solidly good tacos, including the modern the soft shell crab and the unusual plantain tacos, they lacked the kind of flair that would take them from good to awesome.

Click here to read the full review of Taqueria.

 

Number 2: Corazón

Maybe it’s my Texan bias, but Corazón hit a lot of the right notes for me. The carnitas taco at Corazon was a practically divine experience of orange, cinnamon and pork, and the Baja fish was coated in a perfectly crispy batter. Unfortunately, the interpretation of barbacoa using lamb shoulder was hindered by the overcooked, crumbly liver cubes. (Fortunately, their excellent salsa helped to save the day/taco and bring the taste experience to the next level.)

Click here to read the full review of Corazón.

 

Number 1: Breddos

Breddos doesn’t just make good tacos, they make excellent food. The traditional flavors and hearty heat brought me right back home to Texas, but it was the execution of each item that really made this a memorable experience. From the miso and marrow butter to the spicy chimichurri, each plate had a signature finisher that elevated them from great to awesome.

Click here to read the full review of Breddos.

 

And that, ladies and gentleman, concludes the London Taco Tour! I know there are many more places that I didn’t even get to try, and I’m looking forward to the day I get to return and check out more of what London has to offer.

In the meantime, keep an eye out on the blog for more upcoming taco news…!

London Taco Tour: Mole

London is now a taco town! Over the last two years, some excellent taquerias and innovative Mexican restaurants have opened. And tacos have been deemed “the food trend of 2017” by some London food bloggers.

So we sent our correspondent, Julia Walsh, to London on a taco tour. We’ll be posting her London Taco Tour updates on Taco Tuesdays!

Here is her latest report: 

 

A few minutes walk from the Bond St. Station, I turned the corner from Wigmore onto James St., and found myself on a narrow lane surrounded by a throng of restaurants and patios. Mole is centrally located among these, with a very trendy vibe. The interior is dark and thumping dance music rolls from inside out into the street. There were only a few occupied tables when I arrived, I sat in one of the bright yellow chairs out on the sidewalk to catch the last, dying light of the day. As a Texan, the concept of daylight at 9 PM is strange and wonderful.

My waiter was upbeat and the bounce in his step matched the beat of the music. I thought I’d already decided which tacos I’d get, but when he mentioned the pulpo (octopus) tacos on special, I caved in and had to try them.

The pulpo tacos, on special for the day.

My taco looked like a chap with a feather in his cap! I had to ask what was sticking up out of the top and was told it was a baby corn shoot. The corn shoot tasted like a mixture of greens and super sweet yellow corn. It paired very well with the octopus, which wasn’t as meaty or chewy as I expected, rather it was delicate and silky like ceviche. The sweet corn taste plus the cilantro and onion balanced out the brine of the sea, making for a very light and fresh bite.

Chipotle short rib tacos.

My second taco was the chipotle beef short rib, which was piled high and served with a chipotle cream, and crunchy sweet potato hay and a couple of chile slices on top. The beef was incredibly tender but wasn’t the taco I had hoped. I’d imagined that the chipotle would be mixed with the short rib for a sweet and tangy kick, but instead, it was lost in the cream underneath. Maybe I was thinking too much of chopped beef brisket, but I had definitely had high hopes for this combo and felt slightly disappointed.

Sea bass ceviche with plantain chips, corn kernels, and sweet potato.

For my last meal in London, I wanted to have a little fun, so I also ordered the sea bass ceviche. The menu description included plantain chips, puffed/charred corn kernels, chunks of sweet potato along with the onion, cilantro, and lime juice. The additional ingredients were earthy and sweet in contrast with the lime and fresh fish, which made for a delightful mouthful. Ceviche is normally light, but the sweet potatoes and corn gave this dish a satisfying heartiness. I learned later that the sweet potato and corn are part of the traditional Peruvian ceviche presentation.

The tables had been steadily filling up around me as evening light finally gave way to the cool of the night. The street began to wake up. I sipped my mezcal margarita and watched as lights flickered on, the music started to stream in from all corners, and the block went from quietly busy to pulsing and lively. I could have easily stayed another hour and just watched people go by. I enjoyed my dinner and my evening at Mole, and would certainly return to do it again.

By the way, Mole offers their tacos in either a corn tortilla or lettuce leaf.

London Taco Tour: Taqueria

London is now a taco town! Over the last two years, some excellent taquerias and innovative Mexican restaurants have opened. And tacos have been deemed “the food trend of 2017” by some London food bloggers.

So we sent our correspondent, Julia Walsh, to London on a taco tour. We’ll be posting her London Taco Tour updates on Taco Tuesdays!

Here is her latest report: 

Walking down the sidewalk, you might miss Taqueria if you weren’t looking for it. The gray painted front of the building is dominated by windows painted with tacos specials, but the bright orange overhang obscures the name of the restaurant from view. I wasn’t sure I’d arrived until I saw the menu box near the door, and the smell of tacos hit my nose.

The tables were all taken when I arrived, so I choose one of the comfy leather bar seats along the window. The crowd ranged from young adults to families with small children, all happily munching their tacos. My waiter dropped off my menu with a quick smile, took my order for a drink and left me to look the menu over.

Taqueria offers an impressive sixteen different taco choices, which was the widest variety I’d seen in London. They were also the only ones I’d noticed offering “naked tacos”, or the choice of lettuce instead of a tortilla (a request I see more and more often in Texas). I had not felt starved for choice at any other place, and now the sheer number was making it pleasantly difficult to pick. Since I’d been sticking to mostly classic flavors on my trip, I decided to mix it up and order some unusual items: The Soft Shell Crab, the Plantain, and the Rolled Cheese.

I love soft shell crab, but I’d never had it on a taco and wasn’t sure what to expect. What arrived was a bed of pickled jalapeño mayo and guacamole, crowned with a golden fried crab and sprinkled with tomato. After a little coaxing, the crab folded into the tortilla so I could take a bite. My first bite was an overload of guacamole and mayo. The 2nd bite was better since I got more of that delightful crab flavor, but it still didn’t feel like it was the star of the show. I removed half of the guacamole and sour cream on the second taco and was immediately rewarded. The crab was now front and center and only supported by the other flavors. Much better!

I’ve been eating plantains since childhood, so they hold a special place in my heart. The fruit is similar to a banana and is caramelized in a pan until sweet and soft, and in many places is served with refried beans and crema. I was really pleased to see that the taco was built with those flavors. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the bold, smoky chipotle sauce paired with the sweet banana and livened up a palate of creamy, earthy flavors. The raw onion and fried chile slice added texture to the mix. I don’t think it’s just the early childhood memories that made this taco so satisfying.

I couldn’t decide what I was going to get when I ordered the rolled cheese. It hit the table last, but it deserved a solo entrance. I believe it’s made by putting cheese down on the griddle until it becomes brown and crispy, then adding the toppings (possibly with more cheese?) and rolling it up with a spatula before placing it on the tortilla. The result is a super sexy melty cheese oozing with your topping of choice (mushroom or house-made Mexican chorizo) and all wrapped up in a layer of crispy browned cheese. The roasted tomato salsa was an excellent pairing here, bringing some sweet and acid to the molten cheese. With the mix of crispy and soft cheese and the tomato salsa, it tasted reminiscent of pizza. I would have liked to try the house-made Mexican chorizo (since I hadn’t found ANY Mexican chorizo on my entire trip to England!) but I don’t regret the mushrooms at all.

When I began to photograph my food, I attracted the attention of the manager, Juan. After chatting a bit about my experience, he filled me in on the history of the restaurant. Taqueria began as the Cool Chile company stall in Notting Hill before settling in their brick and mortar location on Westbourne Grove. Cool Chile is a tortilla and sauce purveyor, and the main supplier of tortillas in the city. Juan lamented the unfortunate timing of my visit, noting that they were out of the usual bottles of habanero sauce that adorn the tables. Taqueria changed ownership the week before I visited, so they were changing the salsas and a few other little things, but the majority of the restaurant will remain unchanged.

Overall my experience was a good one (though the corn tortillas were a bit dry). The tacos were different, and most importantly, satisfying. Taqueria chooses to use organic and free range ingredients when possible, so the prices are a bit higher than average, but I can confirm they’re worth it!

Dear Audrey: Texans Deserve Better?

Katie Walsh comments on a recent article in the Daily Texan:

The chile relleno at Matt’s El Rancho in Austin—which was Lyndon B. Johnson’s favorite dish here—came covered in queso instead of ranchero sauce, by request.

My sister Julia ordered the Grilled Old Fashioned tacos, which we’ve been eating here for at least 20 years. We’d just caught wind of the recent Daily Texan opinion piece, and we both took a moment to marvel over the absurdity of insulting such beautiful, delicious food before happily digging in.

In case you missed it: Last week, in a twisted shout to the 65th anniversary of the family-owned establishment, a columnist named Audrey wrote that Tex-Mex was “distinguishably disgusting”; “white-trash snack food wearing an inauthentic Mexican mask.” I have so many questions, Audrey.

Where ya from? How many Google clicks did you give your research? Ever *eaten* at Matt’s? And most importantly, where the heck have you been getting your Tex-Mex?

Matt’s El Rancho was opened by Matt and Janie Martinez in 1952. Matt grew up selling tamales, chili and pralines out of a wooden pushcart on Congress Avenue for his father, who had a Tex-Mex joint called El Original. Today, Matt and Janie’s daughters run the restaurant. The recipes have been passed down for generations and the in-house tortilla factory grinds its own non-GMO corn. Like many of our Tex-Mex staples here in town, they’ve even got multiple vegetarian options, @veg_lomein.

I’m not sure why you chose the anniversary of the Martinez family legacy as the occasion for your uninformed rant, but I apologize to them on your behalf, and tbh I’m kinda stunned at your ability to mindlessly erase the history of an entire family and an entire culture in a few poorly-formed generalizations.

Katie Walsh at Matt’s El Rancho in 2008

This isn’t the first time someone bashed Tex-Mex with the ugly bastard stick. Back in 2012, I wrote a piece for Latino Magazine about the ongoing, impassioned fight about Mexican food culture and the lines we draw between “authentic” Mexican and the ever-evolving foodways of Mexican-Americans. Purists like author Diana Kennedy agree that Tex-Mex is “inauthentic,” but the question is, to whom?

As yourself and Diana and countless others like you have failed to recognize, the American regional cuisine known as Tex-Mex is and always has been Texan, even as the political and geographical lines that define the state changed. Tex-Mex cuisine actually dates back to the Spanish mission era of the 1700s, and tells the unique sociological story of Tejanos: native Texan peoples, Mexican-born Texans, and their descendants.

Tejano history is deep and rich, and it has been the driving cultural force in Texas since long before any of us had opinions about the authenticity of its food. After learning Spanish agricultural practices, Tejanos created the iconic Texas ranching tradition—which, by the way, would later be adopted by the Czech and Central European settlers you’d rather we celebrate. Tex-Mex is the food of Tejanos.

In his book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Gustavo Arellano illustrates the dismissal of Tex-Mex and other modern, American-born adaptations of Mexican food as a dismissal of Mexican-Americans themselves with this quote from writer Jesse Sanchez:

“Tex-Mex is important to us because it’s our bond to Mexico, even for us born in the United States. And it’s just Mexican food to us. Are we less Mexican or Mexican-American because we are Tejanos? We consider ourselves all part of the ‘Mexican food’ family and are surprised to hear when people speak of our food—or us—with disdain. The critiques sound elitist to us, and that says a lot coming from a state where we claim everything is bigger and better.”

Elitist is a good word. Audrey—girlfriend—you say that the three main ingredients of “flavorless tortillas, bland rice, and lackluster beans” “should be enough to send any well-minded consumer running in the opposite direction.” Who exactly are these “well-minded consumers”? You mean white folks with money?

Tortillas, rice, and beans are central to the cuisine of many Latino cultures, including “authentic” Mexico’s. They are often important foods for the nutrition and survival of the working poor and impoverished (and even some of your fellow students), and both in restaurants and in family kitchens they are prepared with the same steps and spices that have been used by grandmas and great grandmas and great great grandmas.

I actually feel bad for you. I’m so curious where you found all this tepid muck you insist is the “cornerstone” of Tex-Mex. I’ve been eating buttery flour and floral corn tortillas, veggie-studded rice, and rich, long-cooked beans since I was a baby. I’ve sampled them in numerous local Tex-Mex restaurants and in the homes of many Mexican-American friends. They are almost always bursting with flavors; soft and bold, herbal and earthy, creamy and spicy.

So Audrey, I really wanna know—who fed you such a shitty meal and why did you decide it defined a whole cuisine?

Look, I get it—you had some crappy, cold queso and some under-salted beans, you ended up in a cheap dive that reheats Mission premades and questionable meat on greasy plates, you picked the wrong restaurant—happens to the best of us. But Audrey, mama, you can’t just write off an entire people and their food because of your bad experience.

Or maybe you just don’t like it, and hey, that’s cool too! 

I know plenty of folks who don’t like the heavy use of easy-melt cheeses in Tex-Mex—it “never looks too far off from Velveeta” because most of the time, it is. And there’s a reason for that. I acknowledge that it isn’t a healthy option, but nonetheless, there’s history behind it that deserves respect.

As a family friend named Richard Flores explains, Velveeta and cheeses like it likely worked their way into Tex-Mex tradition due to the historically lower socioeconomic status of Tejanos. His and many other families depended on the 5-pound blocks of “government cheese” that were handed out to low income families in the ‘70s and ‘80s to fill their enchiladas.

“You couldn’t buy queso fresco when I was a small child. It wasn’t available. So you used what you had, and what we had was American processed cheese,” Flores said.

You could’ve made a great argument for updating traditions like these now that we’ve got higher quality options. But to flippantly brand the food that defines the experience of many Mexican-Americans in this state as “white-trash” and “inauthentic” isn’t only terribly misinformed, it is a perfect example of the tone-deaf ignorance that continues to distance white folks from our brethren of color, at a time when what we really need is solidarity.

To then suggest that we should instead focus on the European influences on our state is, whether you intended it or realized it or not, both a racist and neocolonialist way to look at the world.

As a matter of fact, Texas’s other most famous food, barbecue, has long suffered from this very same racist viewpoint. While Mexican vaqueros and African-American chuck wagon cooks contributed equally to Texas barbecue history, it is often only the Czech and German traditions which receive recognition and credit. Oops.

Audrey, our state was shaped by First Nations peoples. Our state was shaped by black people. Our state was shaped by brown people from Mexico and brown people who were born here. Our state has been shaped and reshaped by these peoples for centuries and it is dynamic and beautiful because of it. Celebrating their influences on our food traditions, whether we like them or not, isn’t just important, it is our duty as white Texans living in a world that already does enough to erase the merits and existence of people of color.

I’m really, really sorry you had such a bad bowl of queso. But don’t be a jerk, Audrey. Tejanos aren’t white trash, their food isn’t disgusting or flavorless, and Texans don’t deserve better. In case you haven’t heard—no matter what tradition we come from—we’re already the best.

-Katie Walsh

 

Review: Mama Frances Soul Kitchen

Smothered pork chops were the special on Thursday at Mama Frances Soul Kitchen. The pork chop plate comes with a mound of homemade mashed potatoes and savory brown gravy plus two sides. I went for some very porky tasting mixed collard and mustard greens and the creamy black-eyed peas.

The five-table restaurant’s slogan is “The Small Place with the Big Taste.” It’s located on Vauthier St. in La Marque. From the Vauthier exit on I-45, drive a mile or so east until you see the La Marque High School buildings on the left–Mama Frances is right across the street in tiny shopping center. The restaurant is open Monday to Friday 11 am to 6 pm.

The place is named after Shirley’s mother, who never actually worked there, but who provides inspiration from afar. Mama Frances is a home cook in the small town in South Carolina where Shirley grew up.

When Shirley was a child, Mama Frances started a catering service. Her food became so famous that patrons would pack her soul food dinners and holiday cakes in dry ice and fly them all over the country.

Mama retired recently on reaching her 80th birthday. But Shirley is betting she will reopen temporarily over the holidays. Mama Frances just can’t stay out of the kitchen. It seems like a family obsession. Shirley’s daughter Kirsten is a buyer for Whole Foods and also runs a popular muffin and cupcake bakery in Katy called Glorified Muffins.

We were the first customers for lunch at Mama Frances Soul Kitchen at 11:30 am on Thursday. Our meal began with a square of crumbly, hot out-of-the-oven cornbread and butter.

I also sampled Shirley’s spectacular gumbo, made with fresh crabs, shrimp, fish, chicken and sausage. The soup owes its depth of flavor to stock made with lots of seafood and a walnut brown roux. The gumbo isn’t always on the menu, but if its available, give it a try.

My dining companion had the succulent baked chicken with rice and peppery chicken gravy. Rice and gravy fans will love this rendition. Her sides were cheddar-rich mac n’ cheese and some unremarkable green beans. She washed these down with a cold A&W root beer.

Dessert was pear cobbler which looked glorious, but I was too full to eat it. So I ordered it to go. There was also a peach cobbler in the oven, Shirley told me, and while I was tempted to wait, I decided the chance to sample more desserts would give me an excuse to return soon.

“On Fridays, we put out a whole spread of desserts,” Shirley said.

I highly recommend Mama Frances Soul Kitchen.

See you there next Friday.

London Taco Tour: El Pastor

London is now a taco town! Over the last two years, some excellent taquerias and innovative Mexican restaurants have opened. And tacos have been deemed “the food trend of 2017” by some London food bloggers.

So we sent our correspondent, Julia Walsh, to London on a taco tour. We’ll be posting her London Taco Tour updates on Taco Tuesdays!

Here is her latest report: 

Despite its central location across from the Borough Market just south of the London Bridge, El Pastor feels like a hidden gem. Tucked away on a tiny side street with a very Mexican-looking sidewalk dining set-up, it’s a delightful place to drop in for some tacos between sightseeing and shopping. People are constantly coming and going in this highly populated neighborhood.. Despite all that, I never saw anyone wait for a table.

My waiter Gaëtan, from Paris, helped answer my questions as I reviewed the menu. There were many delicious sounding options, including an Ahi Tuna Tostada and a Prawn Mojo de Ajo taco, which he noted was a popular choice. I decided to keep it simple and to the point by ordering just the Chicken and the Pork Al Pastor.

24-hour marinated pork al pastor tacos

The tacos at El Pastor are served in pairs on emerald colored glass plates, with tortillas made in house with a combination of white and blue corn. My first bite of their namesake taco was awash in deeply sweet, caramelized pineapple married with rich, smoky pork that is marinated for 24 hours before cooking. The pork tasted amazing, though it was “well smoked” and a little dry. Luckily, the juicy pineapple pieces and guacamole made the dryness of the meat hardly noticeable.

I hadn’t ordered any chicken so far on the London Taco Tour, and the chicken taco reminded me to give chix a chance! Sadly the chicken on my taco was dried out as well. I still enjoyed every bite of the big, delicious flavors from the chipotle, cumin and adobo rub and the onions, taquero salsa, and cilantro added lots of moisture and fresh flavors.

Maybe it was the time of day, but the proteins on the El Pastor tacos I sampled left something to be desired.

Para todo mal, mezcal. Y para todo bien, tambien. — Oaxacan saying.

El Pastor’s mezcal selection made up for their less than spectacular tacos.. There are two mezcals listed on the back of the food menu with the other drinks, and there’s an impressive list of seventeen options on the dedicated mezcal menu.

If you aren’t acquainted with mezcal, the name describes a family of distilled spirits originally made in Mexico by baking the heart of the agave plant in an earth oven, fermenting it and distilling the alcohol produced. Tequila is a mezcal produced in a specific area limited by law (much like a European AOC). Mezcals are produced across Mexico, most famously in Oaxaca.

At El Pastor, you can choose between a 35ml pour, or a carafe of either 150ml or 250ml (now we’re talking!). All the mezcal is served with a traditional garnish of an orange slice sprinkled with  sal de gusano, a Oaxacan condiment made by drying agave worms in seasalt, grinding them, and mixing the salty powder with chile costeño). It’s surprising tasty stuff if you can get over the idea of ingesting insects.

I decided on the Meteoro brand mezcal, which was described on the menu as “an earthy and sweet snog.” The meaty, leathery flavor of the drink fit the poetic description perfectly.

El Pastor’s alluring outdoor dining area in the thick of London and its selection of exotic Mexican libations make it a wonderful spot to grab a few tacos and a drink. As I sat and sipped my mezcal alternating between people watching and chatting with my waiter, the sun slipped ever lower in the sky and I felt no inclination to leave my perfect perch.

As to the interior of the restaurant, well, my apologies for the lack of a description. It wasn’t until I examined my photos some time later that I realized I had forgotten to look inside.

All Photos by Julia Walsh

London Taco Tour: Breddos Tacos

London is now a taco town! Over the last two years, some excellent taquerias and innovative Mexican restaurants have opened. And tacos have been deemed “the food trend of 2017” by some London food bloggers.

So we sent our correspondent, Julia Walsh, to London on a taco tour. We’ll be posting her London Taco Tour updates on Taco Tuesdays!

Here is her latest report: 

Breddos closes from 3-5 pm in that slack period between lunch and dinner. I rushed across London despite delays on the tube, slipped in the door at twenty minutes to 3 and asked politely if I could get a table. The staff was doing paperwork and relaxing in a couple of empty booths as the kitchen was beginning to shut down, but they still happily seated me.

The tacos and tostadas of the day when I went in.

The cozy restaurant has mostly bar seats, a few booths, and a large table in the middle that seats twelve. The decor here is simple shapes in bright colors on a background of white.

The wall across from the kitchen/bar entrance features shelf after shelf of vintage vinyl LPs. A turntable spins on the table beneath them. When the records occasionally skipped, I felt a wave of endearment for the whole place. The sound just fit the vibe somehow.

Stevie, my waiter, slid into the opposite side of the booth with an easy smile, asked if I’d been in before, and chatted with me about the daily specials. Breddo’s does a rotating daily menu and all the tacos are popular, he said (though there are a few “favorites” that repeat in various forms from day to day). I decided to order the Pork Al Pastor, the Baja Fish, and the Carne Asada.

Stevie also recommended a Mezcal Tonic with what I’d ordered, especially on such an unusually hot day. It was a delightful mash-up of Mexican and traditional British flavors, with the Mezcal and orange blending together smoothly and the quinine bite of tonic on the end to finish it out. I was only a few sips into it when the rest of the plates hit the table. The tacos were served on two 3-3.5 inch tortillas, which might seem dainty or cute, but these tacos pack a mighty punch!

The Pork Al Pastor taco

The Al Pastor, described as pork neck roasted over the pineapple pieces, was delicious, falling-apart tender with only minor notes of pineapple. I was just about to take another bite when all hell broke loose on my tongue. Fire, fire! This was easily the spiciest thing I’ve eaten in England (aside from curry). The menu called it salsa negra, but the light green sauce looked like a tomatillo-based salsa.

Reaching for my drink on instinct, the blend of mezcal and orange mixing with the pineapple and heat was a beautiful thing. What a pleasantly picante surprise. Some London taco fans were reluctant to recommend Breddos to me because of the spice level here. They insisted the chile heat made the tacos hard to enjoy. Not for me!

 

The Carne Asada taco

The Carne Asada was by far the sexiest-looking taco, and the flavor didn’t disappoint. Aged hanger steak, cooked medium rare, was placed on a base of onion crema, then topped with miso & marrow butter. Wow! You don’t get a lot of marrow butter on your fajitas back home.

The heat came from a bright and spicy chimichurri, which was a great counterpoint to the onion crema while also underscoring the richness of the miso and marrow butter. Let’s just say I don’t have more notes because it disappeared from my plate rather quickly!

The Baja fish taco

The Baja fish taco was a little disappointing. The batter on the fish was kind of chewy. I admit I also ate this one last, and it also could just have been that I was there when the kitchen was winding down for the break. Either way, it was still tasty, and the purple cabbage went a long way in making up for lost crunchiness. The fish flavor fit nicely between the strong bright habanero lime mayo and the lightly charred earthy tortilla.

 

For a little something different, I ordered the Pulpo (Octopus) Tostada. The octopus was tender with pleasantly chewy edges, served on top of crispy potato cubes over a base of avocado, with marrow butter on top. The crispy and delicate tostada broke apart easily for eating and added a tiny bit of sweetness with the avocado. After a short time, the potatoes and the tostada were soaking up the rich, salty marrow, kicking the decadence up a notch. The whole thing was absolutely delightful to eat. One of the day’s salsas, a pasilla Oaxqueno & roasted tomato, had a smoky, strong roasted flavor with minimal heat and was an especially nice compliment to the octopus and marrow.

I took notes and ate tacos at a leisurely pace while the staff worked and bantered nearby, never batting an eye as my camera clicked. It may have been especially true due to the timing of my visit, but the attitude of the whole place was quite relaxed. I know shift meals are common, but my heart swelled two sizes when I noticed that the staff setting the communal table to share a meal together. There was something about it that spoke of a deep camaraderie, like a glimpse into the heart of the restaurant.

The staff of Breddos (minus Stevie). Thanks, guys!

According to their website, Breddos started as a makeshift taco shack and has since risen to the heights of releasing a cook book and taking part in the cook-off at LA’s Tacolandia festival in 2016, among other things. (My Dad is the curator of Tacolandia, Houston!)

All of their tortillas are made in house with non-GMO corn that is ground on a volcanic stone mill, which makes a notable difference in the flavor. They certainly deserve their good reputation based on these mouthwatering tacos.

London Taco Tour: Corazón Taqueria

London is now a taco town! Over the last two years, some excellent taquerias and innovative Mexican restaurants have opened. And tacos have been deemed “the food trend of 2017” by some London food bloggers.

So we sent our correspondent, Julia Walsh, to London on a taco tour. We’ll be posting her London Taco Tour updates on Taco Tuesdays!

Here is her latest report: 

During my reporting on the Manx-Mex Chronicles, I was invited to go down to London for a taco tour. There has been a huge uptick in the number of Mexican restaurants, taquerias, and mezcal bars in the last year or so, and bloggers all over are raving about them! So I packed my bags and headed to London.

I would have liked to get a breakfast taco but found nothing open before noon, so I spent the morning in a coffee shop narrowing down top 5 restaurants based on menu and distance. Soon I was strolling over to Corazón Taqueria. The building looks and feels like a beach home in Cabo – open, airy, decorated in blues and whites reminiscent of the sea.

Arriving about half past noon, I was mildly surprised that the place was entirely empty except for myself and the staff (just after opening on a Monday isn’t their busiest hour). Choosing a seat was easy thanks to the open, accordion-style window overlooking a couple of small white tables on the outside.

I looked over the menu. One page was the “Counter Offer”, which was a plate of two tacos with sides. I was more interested in getting a variety of tacos, so I stuck to the regular menu. After chatting with the bartender I knew the most popular sellers on the taco menu are the Carnitas, Baja Fish, and Guv’nor (king prawns and baby shrimp grilled with peppers, tomatoes, and onions). I ordered the Carnitas, Barbacoa, and Baja fish tacos to compare with the Mexican flavors I’m used to.

The Carnitas taco – pork cooked in orange juice, cinnamon, and Mexican oregano.

I started with the Carnitas taco, which was stuffed with a combination of shredded pork belly and collar. The pork is slow cooked in orange juice, Mexican oregano, and cinnamon then topped with bits of crunchy fried skin and flecks of pickled jalapeño. It was served with a classic roasted tomatillo salsa that had a low level, creeping heat. The orange and cinnamon were stronger and sweeter than I’m used to, which added another dimension to the rich pork, making an excellent taco. And all wrapped up in a house-made tortilla! I breathed a sigh of contentment.

The Barbacoa Taco – lamb shoulder and liver cooked low and slow.

I eagerly dug into my next taco, the Barbacoa. Corazón’s version of barbacoa was a combination of lamb shoulder and liver, wrapped in banana leaf and cooked for 7 hours. When I ordered it, I’d had a dreamy vision of tender, flavorful lamb paired with creamy liver for a double whammy of richness, but unfortunately, the long cooking time meant the liver had become tough and crumbly, which took away from my pleasure in eating it. The lamb was rich and had a dark red color to it, but even with the added liver, it seemed sadly one dimensional in flavor after the carnitas taco. The salsa served on the side was mind-blowing, though. It’s made with tequila, tomato, onion, tomatillo, ancho, chipotle, and honey, which created a smokey and complex sauce and gave the taco life.

The Baja Fish Taco – exceptionally crunchy battered fish over cabbage with chipotle mayo.

The Baja fish taco was another pleasant surprise. Despite being left until last, the battered fish was delightfully crunchy. All of the tacos at Corazón are well-stuffed, but this was an enormous piece of meaty fish, with an excellent crispy batter, on top of crunchy cabbage with a chipotle mayo. I hate it when the fish gets overpowered by the creamy sauce, but the chipotle mayo was light and not too sweet, a perfect compliment. The whole thing was served on a blue corn tortilla, which had it’s own lovely, mild sweetness that’s different from a standard corn tortilla.

Taking out the camera and shooting sexy close-ups of the tacos kind of tipped off my bartenders and servers, Verena and Nick, that I wasn’t just grabbing a casual lunch. After admitting my goals for the day, we chatted about the menu and the items they like, as well as other taquerias in the area.

Verena has been a bartender for years and worked all over, including at Glastonbury. Her family is Rastafarian and Muslim, so she didn’t eat pork when she started working at Corazón. But when they had a menu tasting, she said to herself, well, I have to try it. When she first bit into the Carnitas taco, she was wooed. And when she recently sampled an item that will be coming to the menu soon (whole pig head boiled in stock, which is then reduced with booze and butter and served on a mass (pan)cake), she said it was “so amazing.” “Well, I guess I’m back [to eating pork]!” she laughed. Her description made me wonder when it would be feasible to visit London again after it made its debut.

The atmosphere at Corazón is pleasantly relaxed, and I had such a great time lounging around and eating delicious tacos near the window on this beautiful, sunny afternoon. Laura Sheffield, the boss and owner, is from College Station, Texas and worked with a Mexican anthropologist to develop the menu. No wonder that these tacos made me feel like I was back home in Texas.

I think Verena could tell I was reluctant to leave this little oasis despite the day ahead of me, because she invited me back for a margarita that evening to continue our chat. I thanked her and told her honestly I’d be happily flopping into bed at the end of the day. It was getting late so I said a fond farewell and zipped out the door to my next destination.

Manx-Mex Chronicles: Manchester’s Top 5 for Tex-Mex

I’ve had a wonderful time here in Manchester, and have had some hilarious and some great experiences while hunting down the available Tex-Mex as part of the Manx-Mex Chronicles. As a wrap up to the series, here are my Top 5 Tex-Mex tastes of the series by post.

I am judging these by the food accuracy (how close it is to actual Tex-Mex or food you’d find in Texas) and overall enjoyment of the food and the location. Counting down from number 5 (least) to number 1 (most):

Number Five: Un Burrito at Chango’s

This post makes number five because the burrito itself was good, made with accurate and delicious ingredients, offered a great variety of tasty hot sauces, and had a convenient, casual location. It’s not a place that feels like you’d want to hang out longer than it took to eat, though.

Number Four: Enchiladas at Las Iguanas

Despite the odd serving choices (A simple enchilada in a burrito sized flour tortilla? A lake of refried beans with a rice island in the middle?) the flavors on this dish really made it stand out. The refried black beans were more than just a bland paste and the roasty, chipotle flavor in the red sauce really made this dish shine.

Number Three: Crazy Cal-Mex at Luck, Lust, Liquor and Burn

While these are definitely in the realm of Cal-Mex instead of Tex-Mex, I really loved the nachos we had at LLLB, as well as the place itself. The drinks were my favorite overall (I still drool remembering that super smooth añejo mezcal and excellent Lagerita with grapefruit!), they have a great location in Northern Quarter, and little details like the tiles on the tables and crazy menu style made me feel relaxed and at home. The nachos were fun and offered over the top choices mixed with traditional ingredients, were covered heavily and evenly with toppings, and stayed crispy to the last bites. Plus, just LOOK at that pile of jalepeños!

Number Two: Fajitas Bonitas at Chiquito

Maybe it was because the place was empty when we went, but Chiquito had a more relaxed than fun feeling to it. The drink selection was very good, and these steak fajitas made my heart soar when they hit the table. The smell, the sizzle, the taste! Medium rare steak slices over sweet onions and bell pepper rolled into tempting tacos was a bite of Tex-Mex taste. It was a journey home on a plate, and definitely a great dish!

Number One: Mission de Mayo at Las Iguanas

Yes, I already did a dish from Las Iguanas, but it really was a satisfying experience and my favorite location overall. The restaurant is brightly colored, full of lively customers, and has good deals on appetizers and drinks which add to the upbeat and fun vibe. After a string of disappointments, these nachos felt like a gift from above!  These are what I consider to be the closest to the kind of nachos I know and love – A plethora of traditional toppings, gooey melty cheese, and a good ratio of chips to toppings.