The meat is tender and slightly fatty, the flavor undeniably lamb: rich, with a gamy tang. You fold chunks of meat and, in my case, a heavy spoonful of the restaurant's sharp and spicy salsa verde, into a warm, soft flour tortilla, and repeat until the chafing dish is empty and you swear you won't be able to eat again for a week.
Which is fortunate, because Taqueria los Tarascos' lamb barbacoa is available only on the weekend.
Can you feel homesick for a place you've never lived? I know, it sounds like a country song or maybe the loose English translation of a thirteen-syllable German philosophical term. But that's the question I pondered while eating at Taqueria los Tarascos. A late Sunday lunch expressly to have the barbacoa, the chafing dish, the simple, strong flavors: I felt less like I was visiting a restaurant than answering a primal need for some of my family's home cooking.
Taqueria los Tarascos might not meet your idea of a taqueria. It's neither a stand nor a truck nor a hut nor a narrow storefront. It's a fairly large restaurant between a pool hall and an Italian restaurant in a homely strip mall in Woodson Terrace. From the parking lot you can see Lambert Airport.
The dining room features spacious tables, ornately decorated chairs and colorful walls. There is a bar (frozen, lime-green margaritas on tap) a server's station (with the rice-based, non-alcoholic drink horchata on tap) and even a nook with video arcade games. The TV sets broadcast soccer matches or Mexican and American music videos. The sound system plays Mexican pop music and Spanish-language versions of American hits. The translation doesn't improve "My Heart Will Go On." The kitchen is located on a mezzanine level to the right of the entrance. Only the large prep area is plainly visible, its glass display case of fresh fruits and vegetables facing the dining room.
"Tarascos" refers to the P'urhépecha, an indigenous (that is, pre-Columbian) people of the southwestern state of Michoacán. The menu is broad in its reach, with dishes you'll recognize from many other Mexican restaurants as well as a few items you probably have never seen before.
The taqueria fare — tacos, tortas, burritos and the like — might not reach the sublime heights of my favorite Cherokee Street haunts, but it is good. Tacos al pastor featured richly spiced pork (though, sadly, no chunks of pineapple). Chorizo, carne asada and suadero tacos with the traditional garnishes of cilantro and chopped onion and, because I couldn't resist, that amazing salsa verde, were all tasty.
(Regular readers might remember my introduction to suadero, a cut of beef near the flank, just above the udder, in the "Gut Check" column a few weeks ago. I mentioned then that some have compared the texture of suadero to that of carne asada. Now that I've eaten them at the same meal, I'd say that while the texture is close, carne asada is definitely more tender. Then again, the suadero meat had been chopped into smaller pieces, giving them a crisper texture.)
Only tacos stuffed with chicharrones (fried pork rinds) were a disappointment, in that the pork rinds were soggy.
An appetizer of tostadas de cueritos offered another adventure in pork skin. The skin was cut into strips slightly thicker than matchsticks, marinated in vinegar and lime juice and served cool. A heaping pile of cueritos is plated alongside three tostadas; atop each tostada are two avocado slices. The texture of the cueritos falls somewhere between squid and octopus on the chewy scale. The vinegar marinade is mild and pairs well with the smooth avocado, but you need a dash or two of hot sauce to make the dish come alive. That texture, though — a little cueritos goes a long way.
The ahogada torta was a variety of the traditional Mexican sandwich new to me. The meat, which comes from the leg of the pig, is served in a very spicy árbol chile sauce and then topped with tomato, onion, lettuce and avocado. What makes the ahogada torta unusual is that the chile sauce is also poured over the roll, so you don't really have a choice but to eat the sandwich with a knife and fork.
The torta was served with mediocre French fries, one of a few American concessions on the menu. There are Buffalo wings and chicken nuggets on the appetizer menu, for example. There is also an oyster dish called the "Viagra Cocktail," though I think that language is universal.
There's a standard combination-lunch menu (one enchilada and one crisp-shell taco, and so on). I avoided this as well as such dishes as the "Ultimate Nachos," but if your taste in Mexican food runs to the tame and familiar, the tinga quesadilla — shredded chicken, Chihuahua cheese, onion, chipotle pepper and tomatoes — is satisfying.
The restaurant's mole poblano (available in several dishes) is excellent, the sauce's chocolate character assertive but not overwhelming. The chocolate flavor fades into a blend of warming spices that was welcome on a cold afternoon. For a blast of heat, I recommend camarones a la diabla: a dozen medium-size shrimp in a blistering árbol salsa. Seriously: The menu notes the dish with two chile peppers, but three or four might be more accurate. At any rate, I dug the salsa (though I kept pilfering my friend's guacamole for burn relief), and the shrimp had been cooked perfectly.
My favorite dish might have been the tortilla soup, a bowl of brick-red broth teeming with shredded chicken, melted cheese and slowly dissolving tortilla strips. The broth was spicy with a clear citrus note, tart but not puckering. I'd ordered it to complement a plate of tacos, but I found myself ignoring the tacos for another spoonful of the wonderfully warming soup.
It's the kind of thing Mom would have made to combat the sniffles on a frigid winter afternoon. I know living in Mexico is a pipe dream, at best. Still, sitting in Taqueria los Tarascos with a bowl of tortilla soup, it's nice to imagine. And the airport is just down the road.
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