Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yo Quiero

I have a confession to make.   It is in fact, a deep, dark, dirty, shameful secret whose revelation will probably elicit scorn and shun.  It is a scandalous, obscene base desire that haunts me every time it manifests its mortifying grip on my being.  My credibility as a contributing adult, much less a serious food afficionado, walks a precarious line with this licentious information.  But the truth is, I love Taco Bell (or should I say, "Yo Quiero").

Taco Supremes & Burrito Surpreme from Taco Bell
I know, I know.  Taco Bell hardly even qualifies as real food, much less authentic Mexican cuisine, as pointed out in my favorite webcomic, "It's Walky!".    But just like it's eponymous star, Walky, I harbor a ravenous desire for its tasty food like substances, and wind up ordering half the menu every time I walk in.   The thing is, that growing up, Taco Bell really was my first and only exposure to Tex-Mex cuisine.   I never even knew that tacos were originally soft tortillas, not hard ones, until they introduced soft tacos to their menu.   While I despised (and still do) refried beans, the combination of ground beef, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomato and olive, was such an alluring mixture (which for a long time represented their entire menu in served in different forms and ratios).  I think it was the sour cream that really made the difference.  The other ingredients can easily be found atop any burger, but the "Mexican" seasonings playing against the sour cream was just unique and addictive as crack.   Despite having been exposed to more authentic Mexican cuisine, I still fondly and uncontrollably covet their guilty, pleasure inducing consumables.

I have, in the course of my life, been exposed to more authentic Mexican tacos and burritos.   In L.A., where I went to grad school, and in New York, where my sister did, taco trucks are as bountiful as our lunchwagons.  Like our lunchwagons, taco trucks are the cheapest, most authentic forms of the indigenous food available.   There is nothing like walking down the street at 1 AM, wearing leather jacket and gloves, with your breath visible in front of your face, and ordering a steaming tortilla, covered with savory carnitas and fresh salsa from the side of a truck.  It's warm and delicious, and as authentic an experience as you can hope for.

If you're not up for eating something from the back of a truck at 1 AM, there are small hole in the wall places you can go to, but they are somehow equally as seedy.  When visiting my pal, Jim, in San Francisco, he took me to a little place in the Mission District, on Mission and 19th, called Taqueria Cancun.   The Mission District is a bastion of the Hispanic community in San Francisco, but is also home to some of San Francisco's more "colorful" elements.   When visiting Taqueria Cancun, you must be prepared to walk past some unsound, unkept, vagrants who will swear and offer lewd comments to your mother.  Seriously. (Mom and I just ignored him.)  But that just adds to the authentic experience right?   Once inside, it feels like a colorful, safe haven, with the spicy aromas of the foods steaming up the glass partitions.   Of course it isn't truly authentic, unless you've got calves' brains (sesos) and cow tongue (lengua) as beef options, and some exotic Mexican fruit drinks (agua fresca) to accompany them.  If you're adventurous enough to actually wander through the Mission District, Taqueria Cancun is the real deal when it comes to Mission style burritos.

Back home in Hawaii, you'd be a little hard pressed to find a real taqueria that offers the authentic beef tongue or brains.  Since we don't have nearly the Hispanic population that California does, we might as well kick it island style instead.   For that, you can head over to the Queen Kaahumanu Shopping Center on the island of Maui (or right over to Kailua Village in Kailua), for some Maui Tacos.   The great thing about Maui Tacos, is that they know that they can't deliver the truly authentic Mexican tacos and burritos, so they don't even bother to try.   Instead they blend Mexican cuisine with some island flavors to give it our own unique spin.  For example, instead of truly authentic mouth watering carnitas, they offer mango bbq pork and they marinade many of their meats in pineapple juice.   The result is a much fruitier, sweeter, more tropical version of Mexican food, that really has a local flavor.

Mild End of the Salsa Bar at Maui Tacos
Probably the best thing about Maui Tacos is visisting their salsa bar.   They have a nice variety of about 6 different salsas, ranging from mild to hot (well not THAT hot, but hot enough), each with their own unique flavor.   One the mild end, their sweetness (or the tartness) of the tomatoes is really dominant (depending on how sweet or tart the original tomatoes were).   Sweet or tart, the freshness of the tomatoes is what really shines through.  They've also got a nice salsa verde (green salsa) in which you can taste the fresh tartness of the jalapenos.  

Hot End of the Salsa Bar at Maui Tacos
On the hotter end, their chipotle salsa is brightly sweetened by the infusion of mango.   Unfortunately, the sweetness kills all the nice smokiness (but not the heat) that chipotle normally brings.  It's a very different flavor than what you're expecting of chipotle.   Chipotle is also the hottest that they get, much less wandering into habanero territory.   But their best, most original salsa is their pineapple passion salsa.  It is instantly recognizable being bright yellow instead of green or red.  The pineapple gives such a refreshing, sweet taste, that it really brightens up whatever you pour it on.   For dipping and eating straight, none of their salsas can compare to the perfect blend of spice and fresheness of the singluar salsa that Torito's offers.  But Maui Tacos makes up for it in variety and originality, and it really compliments their food when pouring over thier tacos or burritos.

Chimichanga (with Mango BBQ Pork) from Maui Tacos
As the chimichanga is my favorite Mexican dish in general, I tried that first.    Rather than the very crunchy thicker tortilla you find at Torito's, the chimichanga at Maui Tacos has a lighter crispier shell.   All of the ingredients inside reflect the whole freshness that Maui Tacos has in general.   A nice change from those wretched refried beans at most Mexican restaurants, you can get whole black beans.  But they still aren't cooked long enough to have the nice uber creamy texture that cajun red beans and rice does.  The steak really has a flavorful char broiled taste to it.   But I did have to pour some of their salsa over it to liven it up.  In general, however, their chimichanga just isn't as good as the melty, savory, yumminess that is the one at Torito's.  Their approach, emphasizing the freshness of each individual ingredient, is solid but it doesn't compare to the flavorful blended harmony that Toritos' has.

Lahaina Burrito from Maui Tacos
Rather than a chimichanga or taco, the thing I liked best at Maui Tacos was their Lahaina burrito.   To me the best thing about the Lahaina is that it is stuffed with Mexican rice rather than beans.   Since I don't like beans to begin with, this is a huge bonus to me.  But also, the rice works really well with the tender savory mango bbq pork.  Additionally, the burrito being served "wet" (covered with Mexican red sauce) gives it the right flavor and moistness, that you don't need to add any more salsa.   This burrito is also seriously stuffed and a nice size for a good lunch.

The Signature Maui Taco from Maui Tacos
Maui Tacos is just about the opposite end of the spectrum from Taco Bell.   While one is a greasy pseudo-food item that feeds your junk food addiction, the other emphasizes freshenss of each individual ingredient.  Neither of them are authentically Mexican, as Taqueria Cancun, but the originality and tropical fruity flavors at Maui Tacos makes them stand out.   The only problem is that every time I go there, I keep thinking of those super annoying Bu La'ia radio commercials they used to run.  Somehow his slovenly, crass, unrefined demeanor is so contradictory to the fresh, tropical flavors that Maui Tacos offers.

I don't know that I'll ever get to walk down the street in Mexico city, and encounter a bubbling cauldron filled with assorted animal parts to be savored over a warm just handmade tortilla under a sprinkling of freshly chopped and mixed salsa.  Then again, at home, I'm comfortable knowing I'm not going to be spending the rest of the night riding the procelain express either.

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