Taco Mardi!

If I were making a list of things I miss about the United States, Mexican food would be numbers one, two, and three. I know it sounds kinda hysterical, but I really can’t tell you how much of a shift in my diet I had to make coming to live in Paris. I know, cry me a river made entirely of Camembert and Roquefort, right? But seriously, I miss Mexican food in a nearly elemental way. When my mother was pregnant with me, she constantly craved green chile smothered burritos, a decision that left her with a happy fetus and a lot of heartburn.  We joke that I’ve loved New Mexican food since I was in utero and we usually make it down to Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque at least once a year for a serious chile fix.  Let’s just say Clarence in New Mexico would make Clarence in Paris have an aneurism.  The rule of these vacations is that we eat chile at every meal until our gastrointestinal systems mutiny.  Barring a trip to New Mexico—or a couple of coolers filled with chiles from Hatch Chile Days and a couple of bags dried red chile pods from the now (sob) extinct Chimayo ranch—my hometown of Denver has some nice stopgap options for excellent New Mexican style food.  I’m planning a whole Clarence in Denver feature when I go home at Christmas for the first time in a year and a half.  That is, of course, if I’m not too busy warding off culture shock and binge shopping at Target.

I had to acclimate to Southern California style Mexican food when I moved to Orange County in 2005. I’m sure that it is much more authentically Mexican than the “Mexican” I’m really nuts for, which isn’t TexMex either.  There are more big square states out West than most people are aware of, and the kind of food I like best is in New Mexico (with nods of recognition to Colorado and Arizona). Anyway, one thing I did really get to like in California is the ubiquity of taco stands and trucks. There aren’t very many taco trucks in the soulless part of Orange County that I inhabited (though the one that hangs out in front of the Santa Ana courthouse on weekdays is killer and sure takes the edge off of traffic school).  There are, however, a lot of prime brick and mortar locations for my very favorite alliterated holiday: Taco Tuesday.  Mix bargain tacos with drink specials that encourage getting blitzed before midweek and you’ve got yourself a routine. My best friend N and I made a near-religious habit of Taco Tuesdays in the past few years.

Should you find yourself in Orange County on that oh-so-wonderful day of the week, you should definitely check out the bargain eating and boozing options.  In Costa Mesa, you can hit Taco Mesa (647 West 19th Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627), where they have a particularly diverse selection of yummy and healthy tacos, a serve-yourself salsa bar with killer escabeche and salsa verde, and dollar cans of Tecate.  Their heated outdoor patio overlooks the parking lot of the DMV, so you can revel in your culinary indulgence while watching your fellow citizens’ brains explode with frustration.  Maybe you can invite a DMV-disgruntled stranger over to your table! At a mere two bucks for a taco and a beer, everybody can afford to be generous!  Make sure you splurge an extra buck and get yourself a blackened chicken taco. You won’t regret it.

Should you find yourself coast-side in Laguna Beach, treat yourself to a few fish tacos at Taco Loco (640 California 1, Laguna Beach, CA 92651). If you can get over the tacky tourists, the screeching traffic on Highway 1, and the kind of annoying teenagers that spawned an entire generation of reality television shows, Taco Loco has some of the lushest fish tacos in the area. Served with little more than a chucky avocado salsa, the blackened fish, swordfish, shrimp, and calamari can’t be beat.  Skip the chicken and beef variations, and splurge on the seasonal lobster taco when it’s on the menu.  The prices are steeper, but it will still be the cheapest thing you’ll eat in Laguna.

Finally, if your main goal is to just tie one on and eat some tacos in the process, I can’t recommend enough the John Wayne airport-adjacent El Torito (951 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, CA 92660).  Taco Tuesday is a real institution at this rather tragic locale, where Irvine corporate worker drones and tired business travelers converge every Tuesday for dollar tacos and enormous bargain margaritas and beers. It’s got everything you want in an Orange County Taco Tuesday:  an assembly line of skillful chefs who make the tortillas to your order, a light rock soundtrack, a hearty helping of bad plastic surgery, a parking lot full of BMWs, and the stench of quiet desperation. Swear to God, N and I were once debating if we should call a cab outside of El Torito and a strange woman asked us if we wanted to use the breathalyzer that she had recently picked up at Costco.  The more you know, I guess?  Anyway, it’s a real train wreck of a place and I miss spending my Tuesday nights there.

Every Tuesday since moving to Paris, I forlornly remember that somewhere in the world people are eating bargain tacos and getting sloppy. Since such an item isn’t on the agenda here in France (c’mon Chipotle! You could make a fortune on the drunk study abroad kids alone!), I woke up today with a clear sense of purpose: fish tacos and beer for dinner, dammit.

This was no small proposition. While there is a “Mexican” foods section at most large Monoprix in Paris, the offerings are horrifying.  Most stores will sell something they call “Mexican style chili powder,” usually with ginger and paprika as the first two items on the ingredient list (huh?).  It’s virtually impossible to find fresh hot chiles at the many vegetable markets in Paris, and I’ve found it’s difficult to use Thai and Vietnamese chiles you can buy in the Asian markets here in comparable proportions to my beloved jalapeños, serranos, and poblanos. I have discovered that you can buy some decent dried chiles and corn flour at L’Epicerie de Bruno (30 rue Tiquetonne, 75002 Paris) and Izrael (30 Rue François Miron, 75004 Paris), and I make a habit of requesting black beans, cans of roasted green chiles, and pickled jalapeños whenever anyone comes to visit from the States.

After some brutal run-ins with French packaged tortillas, I threw in the towel and gave up. Fortunately, among the many other skills he possesses, B is an avid home tortilla maker. I was skeptical at first, but now I can’t believe I haven’t been making tortillas from scratch my whole life. They are easy, stupidly cheap, and much more delicious than their shelf-stable brethren.  The proportions are simple:  roughly 2 parts masa to 1 part warm water.  In a bowl, combine your masa with a couple pinches of salt.  Then, slowly add the warm water, integrating it as you go along until you have a firm dough.  You may need more or less water, obviously.

Then roll the dough into little balls, and smoosh them between two nonstick surfaces.  We have fashioned a tortilla press out of a wooden cutting board wrapped in cling wrap and the back of a frying pan.  If you find your tortillas are sticking to the pressing surface, dust it with a bit of dry masa.

Heat up a nonstick pan until it’s super-smoking hot. Then drop your tortilla onto the dry surface and cook about 10-15 seconds on each side. It should be easy to flip them without using a spatula, as nothing should be remotely sticky. This is ideally a two-person operation. B and I had a rather nice rhythm going tonight where he pressed and I cooked and flipped. Stack your tortillas in a teatowel, rewrapping your little bundle after each addition to keep them warm.

While these buggers could obviously be the delivery device for a million different things, tonight we ate:

T’s “Take That France!” Tuesday Tacos

For the fish:

1 pound cod filets, skinned and cut into 1-2 inch pieces (sole, halibut, mahi-mahi, swordfish would all do the trick)

¼ red onion

1-2 large garlic cloves

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 large handful of fresh cilantro (stems are not a big deal here)

1 tablespoon of the hottest chili powder you can find (I used my dwindling supply of Chimayo red chile)

A couple of shakes from a rather old bottle of Tapatio abandoned by a fellow expat (untraditional in a marinade, but surprisingly delightful)

2 tablespoons olive oil

the juice of ½ of a lime

Combine everything except the fish in your food processor and pulse until smooth.  Salt and pepper to taste, then cover your fish with the marinade.

While this is marinating, you can make my ode to the Yucatan: green mayo.  This my attempt at a Parisian homage to the ineffable combination of mayonnaise and habenero salsa that you find in plastic squeeze bottles at every taco stand in the Yucatan. Obviously, if you have access to proper habenero salsa, you can skip this step (though my extemporaneous sauce was pretty fantastic).

Combine the following in your food processor:

4 tablespoons Maille or homemade mayonnaise (mayo snob!)

1 large handful of fresh cilantro leaves

1 large handful of fresh mint leaves

juice of ½ of a lime

1 teaspoon of dried cumin

a couple of shakes of cayenne pepper

salt and pepper to taste

Pulse until smooth, and refrigerate until serving.

Fry up your marinated fish in a hot skillet, cooking just until flaky. My cod was really delicate and fell apart, but who cares when it’s in a taco?  I served the warm corn tortillas and fish with homemade guacamole, strips of purple cabbage, and a drizzle of my green mayo. It might just be that I haven’t eaten fish tacos in over a year, but holy shit these tasted good. The spiciness of the fish against the creamy avocado and minty mayo with a bit of crunchy cabbage in a fresh warm tortilla – I wish I ate like this everyday. We cracked open two bottles of the one decent French beer we’ve found and dug in, quickly annihilating twelve tacos between us. Sated and blissed out, B declared “It’s a good day to be me!” which I took as a highest-order compliment of my fish taco skillz. Obviously this would be a bit labor-intensive if you are in a place where you can just go out for dollar tacos on Tuesday, but it’s a nice stopgap measure if you find yourself in taco-free Paris (read that last part so it rhymes, okay?).

 

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