My husband Luis and I are big fans of Tony Bourdain. (I can call him Tony, right? It feels like we’re best friends…)
But we’ve been putting off watching his No Reservations episode on Mexico because we were afraid it would be too good.
See, we used to go to Piedras Negras, Mexico once a year for a family reunion. Piedras Negras sits at the northeastern edge of the Mexican state of Coahuila on the U.S.-Mexico border, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas.
And while it’s only a few hours away from Austin, Piedras is a whole new world. We’d go to the market where we bought cowboy boots and ate icy raspadas; the restaurant where his family has enjoyed decades of Sunday breakfasts; a little empanada shop with dozens of fruit-filled pastries. Then there was the square where we’d walk late at night to get cups of grilled corn from the street vendors, sliced off the cob and topped with butter, lime, and chile powder.
In fact we so love Mexico that we honeymooned there, too, renting a car and high-tailing it out of all-inclusive Cancun to seek out quaint Valladolid and vibrant Mérida.
We long for Mexico. Unfortunately the situation there isn’t good. Gang violence along the border has affected some of our family members, so this year the reunion was held in San Antonio.
I don’t know when we’ll make it back to Piedras, but I did know that Bourdain was going to make us miss it something awful. And sure enough, he delivered. He hit up street vendors, early morning menudo cafes, and taco stands, and by the time he was done, we had a serious craving for tacos al pastor.
A taco from Lebanon
Tacos al pastor is a funny sort of taco. It comes to us from the Lebanese who immigrated to Mexico, but it was given the Mexican spin. Chef David Sterling of Los Dos cooking school describes the transformation:
…the traditional spit-roasted meat called shawarma — generally comprised of layers of seasoned lamb on a vertical skewer that rotates in front of a flame — evolved locally with the substitution of pork marinated in achiote with a pineapple balanced on top. Thin pieces of pork and pineapple are shaved off of the [trompo (vertical rotisserie)] and onto a fresh tortilla. The now-Mexicanized name of this dish — tacos al pastor, or shepherd’s taco — reveals its ancient mideastern roots and belies its principle ingredient, which would no doubt be viewed as a scandalous twist in the pork-eschewing land of its origin. Again, this taco is finished — and localized — by the diner’s own addition of chile tamulado, x’nipek, lime juice or other typical condiments.
But finding this glorious melding of Lebanese and Mexican cuisine isn’t easy, even in a border state. Perhaps it was my demanding list of requirements:
- Tacos al pastor shalt not come from a trendy South Austin eatery with a fancy website.
- Ordering tacos al pastor must require Spanish. (Okay, you can order in English, but I’m pretty sure they taste better if you don’t.)
- Topo Chico must be served at the establishment.
Luis would have given it two thumbs up, but he was too busy eating his taco.
Well, are you still with me, or are you on your way to 1911 E. Riverside Drive, looking for a little taco trailer and a taste of heaven wrapped in corn tortilla? I do hope it’s the latter.
And please, don’t be a wuss — pile on the salsa verde.