Sunday, December 1, 2013

An American, a Russian, and a Frenchman…

walk into a Mexican restaurant.

Well, we’ll get back to them later.

In an article for AAA’s Via Magazine, Josh Sens described his family’s game plan for dining on the road. “Like lots of people who really like to travel and really, really like to eat, I have conflicted feelings about long family car trips. On the one hand, there's the pleasure of downtime with loved ones and the romance of the open road. On the other, there's the prospect of greasy drive-thru dining and the sight of fast-food wrappers strewn like crime scene evidence in the backseat.

“I know of just a few ways to avoid those pitfalls. One is to stock the car as if it were a stagecoach and survive on the provisions like a pioneer. Another is to map the trip in advance, traveling from big restaurant to big restaurant.”

But on a trip up I-5, he “…opted for a third way: We chose to wing it, relying largely on friends' recommendations and wise-sounding suggestions from the Internet…. Risky, to be sure. But our easy-going graze resulted in far more hits than misses, delightful bites that I'd be happy to return to the next time I head up that way.”
One of his finds was La Fortuna Bakery in the small town of Williams, CA (population 5,166), and this article led Chuck’s cousin Barbara and her friend to visit this combination bakery, taqueria, and Hispanic market where they tried the carnitas tacos as recommended in Josh’s article. And so, as we were driving north of Sacramento one morning, the three of us stopped by for a light snack.

We walk through the doors and are amazed by the amount of “stuff” crammed into such a small space.
You can purchase a straw hat with a brim wide enough to keep the sun from your face.
You can choose from a number of flavors of Emperator cookies.
“One of Mexico’s favorite little snacks, Emperador is a product of Gamesa, the country’s largest manufacturer of cookies based in Nuevo León. Gamesa’s roots stretch way back to 1921 when three Mexican brothers bought a controlling share of a pasta and cookie producer called Lara. They soon changed the name to Gamesa and set about satiating the country’s sweet tooth with their cookies” (uncommoncaribbean.com)

You can purchase a colorful piñata or two,
including this one that reminded me of the popular Japanese toy, Hello Kitty.
(Did you know that there is now a Hello Kitty airplane which gives passengers the chance to “use more than 100 in-flight service items, including Hello Kitty headrest covers, pillows, tissue, hand cream, hand-washing liquid, napkins, paper cups, utensils, snacks and meals?” [nbcnews.com]).

We placed our taco orders at the inside counter and found a seat in the small but colorful dining room located off to one side of the market.
Our tacos arrived and, yes, they are small but this size is authentic to “hole in the wall” taquerias. But they certainly weren’t small in flavor.

Barb ordered one carnitas taco.
“Carnitas, literally ‘little meats,’ is a dish made of braised or roasted and then fried or sauteed pork in Mexican cuisine. Pork carnitas are traditionally made using the heavily marbled, rich ‘Boston butt' or 'picnic ham' cuts of pork…” (wikipedia.org).

Chuck chose one pollo (chicken) taco (front taco) and one pierna (pork shank) taco.
And I selected one pork chile verde taco and one asada taco.
“In Mexican cuisine, carne asada (literally 'grilled meat' [specifically beef], though any type of dry heat cooking may be used) is made from thin marinated beef steak. The meat is marinated by rubbing with salt or with spice rubs such as lemon and pepper or garlic salt and lime before being cooked on a grill. It is usually cooked with a certain amount of searing, to impart a heavily barbecued flavor” (wikipedia.org).

Here is where I travel into food-geek land. We were home one day and watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Anthony and his friend Zamir (Gotta) are eating barbeque—burnt ends to be exact—at a BBQ joint in Kansas City, MO. For those of you who are not familiar with Zamir, “Gotta has been a character on No Reservations since 2005….’ Zamir, bringer of peace, singer of songs, drinker of vodka, guide to the Russian soul, accompanied Tony Bourdain in episodes in Uzbekistan, Russia, Romania, Rust Belt, and the Ukraine…’” (blogs.buffalonews.com)

“…Back home in Russia, Gotta is also a writer and producer of nonfiction films on a variety of social issues…. In the early days after the ‘Iron Curtain’ fell, Gotta did everything from representing Russian women for the Ford Modeling Agency to serving as a field producer for the ABC and the BBC. In 1989, Gotta co-produced the HBO special Midnight Train to Moscow with Billy Crystal. He then worked on a number of TV and film projects with American and European stars…. It was on one of those jobs that the Russian producer crossed the path of chef-turned-TV-host Bourdain. The two men took an immediate liking to each other….’ I'm an entertainer on a mission,’ is the way the filmmaker describes himself.” (ctpost.com)

Anyway, while they are eating the burnt ends, Bourdain explains the culinary reaction that causes the crunchy char on meat—the Maillard reaction which is a “culinary phenomenon that occurs when proteins in meat are heated to temperatures of 310°F or higher, causing them to turn brown. Named for the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard who discovered the process at the start of the 20th century, the Maillard reaction is similar to the process of caramelization, where carbohydrates like sugar turn brown when heated. The Maillard reaction is the principle behind the browning of meat when it is seared as a prelude to braising it. This process creates a thick, dark-brown crust on the surface of the meat that enhances its appearance and flavor and can only be created by high-temperature, dry-heat cooking techniques” (culinaryarts.about.com).

So what do an American, a Russian, and a Frenchman have to do with my tacos? While the pork chile verde taco was delicious, the asada taco was righteous. The meat had been cooked, thinly sliced, and then roughly chopped and tossed back on a high temp grill, and each little bit developed the crispy, crunchy, and flavorful crust that I like so much in meat.

Now, you may be asking yourself how I can give 5.0 Addies to a taqueria inside a bakery and market. The answer is—you haven’t tasted these tacos.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.