America has long since recognized that real tacos do not come in shells and are not filled with ground beef. Taco Bell, I believe, is generally recognized to be “fast food” as opposed to “Mexican Food.” That is a good thing. But what are “real” tacos? For example, can tacos be made of this:
While a lamb’s head might not necessarily be what comes to the mind of Middle America when hearing the word “taco”, at Aqui es Texcoco in Chula Vista, the answer is a resounding “YES!”
If, however, staring a lamb in the face is not your idea of foreplay to a taco, Aqui es Texcoco may nonetheless be the place for you. Their specialty is “Barbacoa” a mainland Mexican method of meat cookery (tracing its origins to the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean) in which primal cuts are slow-steamed in an earthen pit over an open fire or coals, covered in maguey leaves.
Without a doubt the dish to order – unless that lamb’s head appeals – is the Lamb Plate. The meat, as is traditional, is served with tortillas and with its broth. At Aqui as Texcoco, that broth is a definite highlight: a rich, heady concoction infused with chile flavors though not particularly spicy (featuring garbanzo bean surprises hidden at the bottom).
There are several options for the meat, not all of which are necessarily available on a daily basis: maciza (lean meat), costilla (rib, which is fattier), pancita (tripe) and sesos (brains)…or a combination of all that are available. The meat is richly flavored, though not nearly as gamey as one might anticipate. The overall sense is of a meaty warmth, a comfort food.
The great glory of many a fine taco shop is the salsa bar. Not so at Aqui es Texcoco (the name refers to a municipality about 25 kilometers northeast of Mexico City). On offer are two sauces, a tasteless brown concoction (that promises chipotle and delivers far less) and a far better tomatillo salsa that provides a nice layer of acid and heat. The best condiment, though, is a pickled onion and habanero relish that is not nearly as hot as one might expect but features the fruity accents that are the pepper’s hallmark as surely as its heat.
There are, of course, other options at Aqui es Texcoco: tostadas, pita sandwiches, rolled tacos and quesadillas. On one trip I tried the Grilled Brain Tacos which, while a bit more greasy than I generally prefer, was otherwise surprisingly good. Brains are often more of a texture than a flavor. Not so these. The taco’s filling was a meaty, umami warmth spreading over the tongue; so good it dares you to wade back in to the grease and get some more.
But if you’re going to go in for more brains – and even if you’re not – the better thing to brave is that lamb’s head. The eyeballs took a bit of courage and are not, perhaps, high on my list of experiences to repeat. But the head was well worth it for the cheek meat alone (there is no edible creature, I’m quite certain, with cheeks that are anything other than tasty). And there is a simple, primal pleasure inherent in the act of picking the meat out of a mammal’s head.
And it makes good tacos too….whether or not Middle America has yet come around to that fact.
- Aqui es Texcoco
- 1043 Broadway
- Chula Vista, CA 91911
— Michael A. Gardiner