Monday, May 05, 2008

Tacos... then

When we first proposed doing a taco night (oh, almost 2 years ago, in August 2006), aka "Mexican Fiesta," to our regulars, there was only a tepid response.

Them: "Tacos?"
Us, enthusiastically: "Yeah, tacos. They're delicious!"
Them: "Really?"
Us, very, very enthusiastically: "Let's set a date for our taco night."
Them: "Okay" (in the vein of "Whatever").

Trying to set a date for our taco night via email, I barely got any RSVPs. I purposely included a couple of different dates, so there was more chance of more people attending said taco night.

Days passed.

No response.

I sent another email reminder, confirming the date and time of the event.

No response.

Chalk it up to our eternal optimism: if you prepare it, they will come.

The doubters had cause to doubt. Up until two years ago, I had never been to a good Mexican restaurant in Vancouver. Most restaurants serve Tex-Mex fare, which is a totally different animal than "authentic" Mexican cuisine.

Our exposure to "Mexican" cuisine were mostly frozen burritos, frozen taquitos, frozen enchiladas, a whole array of what Alyn called Mexican "-titos" in the supermarket frozen section. Which is, to put it kindly, a little blech. I figure a few of these faux Mexicantito meals were enough to set anybody against Mexican cuisine for life. This prejudice -- totally unfounded -- was what we were fighting against.

In my gentle email reminder, I tried to explain it thus:

The difference between Mexican-American and Mexican?

It's like somebody going to Chinese fast food like Panda Express and coming out from the place thinking that what he or she has eaten is real Chinese food.

That person, if of a discerning palate, would probably say, "Yuck, I don't like Chinese food."

BUT Panda Express is not CHINESE food. It's Chinese-American.

Note that there was still no response, so we had to come out with a BOLD PROPOSITION, namely:

Because of people's reluctance, we're started offering money-back guarantees: "We guarantee you'll be wanting more Mexican after Sunday."

There were a couple of tense moments, but happily, we prevailed. I think.

At least, we didn't have to give any people their money back. Not that we charge for food, though. =)

And so here it is, our
Mexican Fiesta!

Que Pasa Tortilla Chips

Achiote Roast Chicken w/ Mayan-style Red Onion Escabeche (Pickled Red Onions)

Even less skilled in food photography then, so bear with the pictures!

I started with a recipe for achiote chicken by Socorro Hernandez (of Yuca fame).

As I was making the paste, I ran into a snag. The recipe called for "salted achiote paste" and I had no idea what this was. I mean, I can venture a guess as to what that might be of course but I don't know exact proportions. So, when I couldn't figure out what "salted achiote paste" is, I started to improvise.

Achiote is more for colour than for flavour. For the paste, I had some ground achiote, minced garlic, oregano, cumin, mint, orange juice, lime. I can barely remember then what the measurements are, and so I absolutely cannot remember now. I just kept adding ingredients and tasting the paste until it sort of tasted okay.

I debated whether to add a bit of jalapeno or serrano, but didn't want to make it too hot. Since this dish is going to be the dish for people who aren't into "Mexican," I thought we'd go with something a little mild. Orange is a fairly accessible flavour so I was going more for the orange notes.

We roasted the chicken pieces in the oven and out they came, wearing rings of orange on top. One really had to eat it with the pickled red onions (pictured above). Good combination.

Yes, this was quite the hit! The red onion escabeche enlivened that whole dish.

Baby Spinach Salad with mango, jicama, red onion & mango dressing

Local Bi-color Corn with Ancho Butter

I simply added ancho chili powder to some softened butter. I re-chilled it in a log form, et voilà!

Of course, the star of the show were the tacos.

We had three fillings: carne asada, fish and last, but spectacularly not the least, carnitas.

But first, the tortilla: Organic Stone-Ground White Corn Tortilla

I was a little bit disappointed with the corn tortillas. This was my first foray into getting corn tortillas and I drove to Que Pasa to buy. Faced with an array of choices, I chose the stone-ground version, but it was the wrong choice, because they seemed too thick for taco purposes.

These tortillas were also too big, but we couldn't find the 4" or 3" ones here though. Debated whether to make them ourselves.

Shot that down because we didn't want to get over-ambitious.

Filling #1: Carne Asada (Lime & Garlic Beef)

We didn't grill these, we just put the steaks under the broiler.

Then, we weren't too happy with the texture of it, so we decided to cube them out and sauté them. I wanted to get more of a crust and/or crunch on the beef. I don't know if they should be called carne asada anymore, but that's what we're calling it for now.

The steaks were simply marinated in lime juice and garlic, two of my favourite things in the world.

Filling #2: California & New Mexico Chile Snapper

We were thinking of fish tacos, but we really did not want to fry fish, à la baja ensenada style.

We're not frying people. We fried about 80 pieces of chicken once for one party of ours and that probably set us straight for life. Never again.

Or at least, never again such large numbers.

We really have a major issue with the batch-cooking required for frying and we never know what to do with the oil after we've fried food in it. We do not have the proper set up for frying in our kitchen.

Frying is out. Grilling is the next choice, but today, it wasn't in me to fire up the grill.

So the snapper pieces just went into a saute pan and were pan-fried.

The fish fillets broke into a million different pieces, but we figure that is okay since they were going to be taco filling anyways.

The snapper were rubbed with a couple of different chili powders, namely, guajillo, ancho, new mexico and california chiles. We haven't really begun a thorough study of the different properties of chili peppers, so perhaps that is a project for the future.

Filling #3: Carnitas

When I started looking for carnitas recipes, I discovered that carnitas were traditionally fried in lard.

Where were we going to get lard? And frying? Please see above for all our frying difficulties.

I started with Miguel Jara's recipe for carnitas. The operative word here is "started."

His recipe called for pork shoulder to be braised in liquid with oregano, thyme, onions, celery, garlic, and bay leaves. After which, the pork is roasted in the oven with milk, to approximate the frying in lard effect.

The pork shoulder braised in the liquid for about 4 hours. As they were braising, smells were wafting.

I smelled.

I added ingredients.

Then I smelled again.

Then I added ingredients again.

Among the list of ingredients I added to the liquid: epazote, more oregano, a little chocolate, and a little coffee.

It is my belief that the resulting carnitas were sublime because of the chocolate and the coffee. After all, coffee and chocolate and milk together is tremendously good, isn't it?

After braising the pork, we shredded the pieces and put them in a roasting pan with the milk. After a while, whenever the shredded pork pieces browned, we would spoon a ladle or so of the braising liquid and stir.

Shredded pork browned and "crispy"; pull out of oven, add braising liquid, stir, put into oven.

Shredded pork browned and "crispy"; pull out of oven, add braising liquid, stir, put into oven.

Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.

This made our carnitas juicy and moist, yet "crispy" as well.

This was such a superstar!!!

A taco feast cannot be complete without the condiments. We pulled out all the stops! (And yes, of course, everything was made from scratch.)

Choice of Condiments:
Pico de Gallo (KILLER hot)
Pico de Gallo (mild)
Salsa Verde (Tomatillo Salsa)
Roasted Tomato Salsa
Minced Onions
Chopped Cilantro
Lime Wedges

left: tomatillo salsa; right: roasted tomato salsa

left: guacamole; right: minced onions

left: chopped cilantro; right: lime wedges

What better way to end the fiesta than with Mexican Chocolate.

When all was said and done, after the taco night was over, it seemed everybody left happy... which is the goal of the whole enterprise.

Do we feel vindicated?

We received an email from Alyn, who wrote:

I take back all the bad things I said about Mexican food.

I should say I have been part of that misdirected lot who vehemently said, "No, no, and no!" to the cuisine when it was brought up as the next food theme. I have good reasons to balk at that -- I've had my share of
taco's, burritos, tacitos, and a whatever-tito's there are in the past and never liked them... Regardless of whatever I ordered in a "Mexican" restaurant, there seems to be no escaping the beans and the cheese!

It had to take [a JS & TS] Mexican Fiesta to open my eyes to the reality -- all these years, what I thought was Mexican food was actually Mexican-American!

The injustice heaped on Mexican food!

Honestly, what did I not like at the spread of food last night? Nothing. I LOVED THEM ALL!!!!

It was great! I really felt bad for those who couldn't make it to the party.

Remember that scene in the movie Hero,where Emperor was talking to the Assassin and the Assassin repeated the word one warrior wrote in the sand, "T'ien Xia" (under one sky/heaven), and the Emperor started tearing up?

The Emperor teared up because it took an assassin to understand what he was trying to accomplish when most people just think of him as a power-hungry, mad tyrant? That is, going to war to make peace by uniting the warring states. . .
Okay, so we're not empresses and our guests were not assassins -- but yes! Couldn't have described it better myself.

Alyn continued to write,

I loved the fact that there was nothing ostentatious to the taste of
the food -- very basic, very simple, very down-to-earth. I could actually taste the meat and how the salsa and all the condiments complemented the mix of flavours.

I can't help myself: I'm tearing up.

Basic, simple, down-to-earth -- exactly!

Nothing ostentatious, nothing pretentious. All the world's great cuisines -- and I would include Mexican in that category, along with Italian and Chinese -- share this basic characteristic.

Simple is best.

And so concludes a successful taco night fiesta.

[eatingclub] vancouver Tacos
Tacos... then
Tacos... now
Tacos of Carnitas with Pineapple, with Roasted Salsa and Sweet Potato
Tacos... again (July 2009)Tacos al Pastor with Chipotle Peanut Salsa
Tacos with Beer-braised Carnitas Filling
Shredded Beef and Tripe Tacos

[eatingclub] vancouver Mexican
Tacos... then
Tacos... now
Chicken Tortilla Soup
Semi-Lime-cooked, Semi-Yucatecan Shrimp with Garlic Chips
Chicken, Broccoli and Cheese with Pipían Verde
Quickie Turkey Tortilla Soup
Tacos of Carnitas with Pineapple, with Roasted Salsa and Sweet Potato
Shrimp a la Mexicana (Camarones a la Plancha)
Enchiladas Verdes
Cilantro Horchata
Strawberry Cilantro Salsa, on Grilled Flank Steak
Mexican Ancho Guajillo Chicken
Chipotle Ground Turkey on Flour Tortilla
Tacos... again (July 2009)
Tacos al Pastor with Chipotle Peanut Salsa
Tacos with Beer-braised Carnitas Filling
Shredded Beef and Tripe Tacos
Duck Enchiladas with Chipotle Peanut Salsa
Blueberry Tres Leches Cake
Crab Tostada
Homemade Mexican Chorizo Sausage
Torta (Mexican Sandwich)


  1. Wow, I can believe that was a hit, it ALL looks fantastic!

  2. I'm not a fan of Mexican food but I actually felt hungry after looking at your post....:O

  3. Man, that was some effort you all put in!

  4. Wow, this is truly a spectacular effort with a focused goal. i highly approve of this taco night.

  5. You can get taco's like that everyday at taco shack. Homemade roast tomato salsa, homemade pico, homemade green tomatillo salsa. Homemade guac. Recipes originate from a friend of the taco shacks mexican grandmother. They also have steak (sauteed to get the crusting), chicken and pan fried fish, not deep fried.


LinkWithin Related Stories Widget for Blogs