Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Barbacoa and picadillo tacos
Some see the $5 taco as the Holy Grail. It is, some say, the highest expression of authentic Mexican street food. For others, it's a sure sign of the impending apocalypse. Not me. I've been to Tacos Varios (Carretera Libre Tijuana-Ensenada KM 47) in Ejido Primo Tapia south of Rosarito Beach in Baja.
The term "taco" dates back to Mexico's 18th century silver mines. The term analogizes corn tortillas wrapped around a protein to the little pieces of paper-wrapped gunpowder they used to excavate ore. Tacos go back further, though. Anthropological evidence shows Mesoamerican Indians in the valley now occupied by Mexico City today ate tortillas filled with small lake fish.
Not so long ago, Americans thought "tacos" were hard pre-formed "shells" filled with ground beef, day-glo "cheese," diced tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and an utterly impotent "taco sauce." The idea of spending $5 for such Taco Bell-style schlock was—and is—unthinkable. Then came Food Network, Anthony Bourdain, Rick Bayless and a relentless, if somewhat philosophically futile, search for "authenticity."
It's tough for a tacqueria to look more "authentic" than Tacos Varios: two Mexican ladies in an open-sided roadside shack working a street cart with flat tires. The trays in the steamer table on the right side of the cart bear various stewed taco fillings: beef barbacoa , stewed pork, picadillo , chicharron and more. The burners on the cart's other side sport sauce pans producing more fillings.
You can order by name (in Spanish) or just point to a tasty looking filling. You won't do much better than the pork. It's everything you love about pork and everything the National Pork Board wants you to forget: fat and flavor, for starters. "The Other White Meat" be-damned. Taco Varios' savory pork stew filling was glorious and flavorful with a layer of chile flavor providing less heat and more in the way of a seemingly impossible depth to the dish.
The beef fillings hit many of the same notes in an "It's what's for dinner" sort of way. The picadillo —ground beef with stewed potato—might be the most familiar to a gringo taco fan, featuring ground beef and all, but with a broader savory flavor profile. Beef barbacoa takes a different path, focusing on the depth of rich, beefy flavor with remarkable tenderness. Chile relleno tacos—breaded and fried poblano peppers stuffed with cheese—sounded more intriguing than they tasted.
Tacos Varios offers a good selection of condiments: a fresh salsa, hot chile sauce, fresh cilantro, diced onions and pickled onions, in particular. All the tacos are served in handmade tortillas tasting deeply of corn. They are far more than just a delivery system for fillings.
From its long-time status as a food-of-the-people, the taco has travelled the world and reached the lofty height of $5 apiece. It is, however, difficult to imagine that anyone, anywhere will get a better taco than the ones at Tacos Varios, where five bucks will also buy four more tacos plus two drinks. The Holy Grail? Perhaps not. But very good tacos for a lot less money.