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March 20, 2013

Taste Bud: Weird, tasty tacos

I meant to order tacos de cecina, I swear. I’d read about them online — thinly sliced, aged steak in a taco? Count me in. But as I eyeballed the menu at El Mariachi in Lyndon, I couldn’t quite remember the “c” word I’d seen in the article I read. Then I saw “tacos de chicharron” on the menu and said that out loud to my server.

That has to be it, I thought.

It wasn’t.

When the taco in question arrived, I looked at it and knew immediately that it wasn’t steak. “This looks like a pig’s ear,” I said to my friend Kirk, who sat across from me. He chuckled. So I used my phone to look up the word “chicharron” and discovered the spongy looking thing in my taco was, indeed, pig skin.

In fact, it was thick hunks of juicy, boiled pigskin. This wasn’t a crunchy snack like those pork rinds my parents used to eat that smelled like toots. But I’m a gamer, and I like weird food, so I ate it. All of it. Here’s what I’m going to say: I won’t order it again, but I’m glad I manned up.

Chicharron, or at least this particular chicharron, was rather spongy and had a flavor I can’t really describe, but which somehow also seemed familiar. There was a citrusy aspect to it, but that could have just been from the lime I squeezed onto the taco.

Anyway, I kept going back to El Mariachi — which anyone who loves Puebla-style Mexican food should try — for the classic tacos they serve, covered in diced onions and cilantro, and garnished in lime. The food is always fresh, and the house-made tortilla chips and salsas are crazy good.

In addition, each order of tacos comes with a garnish of pickled red onions and a sliced radish. Occasionally my order will even come with a couple of pickled carrot slices, or even jalapeno pepper slices. Once, I even got a couple slices of pickled cucumber. (I hate cucumber, but it was still a nice touch.)

Sorry, I got off track there. So, the more I went back to El Mariachi, the more I considered trying out some more of their weird tacos. You only live once, right? I mean, the classics there are great, such as el pastor (marinated pork and pineapple), carnitas (beef tips) and the like, but I kept staring at the word “tripa” on the menu. Yes, that’s small intestines. Cow intestines, to be exact. Crazy, man.

Then, finally, one day I caved. I ordered one taco de tripa and one taco de cabeza, which is made from the head muscle of a cow. (I know, right?)

The cabeza really was quite a bit like tongue. It was moist, tender and had a distinctive flavor that hinted of beef, but also had the slightly gamey quality tongue tends to have. Interestingly, there was a faint sour or even metallic edge to the flavor. It was quite interesting.

But the tripe made me a believer. I’d never eaten tripe in my entire life, and now I’m sorry for what I’d been missing. These hunks of intestines tasted like they were grilled, with that delicious charred flavor in the crispy edges. The intestine meat itself was actually quite tender — I had expected it to be chewy. The flavor was distinctive, but not overpowering like heart or liver.

Call it a happy accident. If I’d correctly said “cecina” instead of “chicharron” that day, I may never have branched out and eaten cow guts. What’s funny is that I still haven’t tried the cecina tacos. Maybe next time. After I’ve eaten more tripe.

Taco Eating Contest
Speaking of tacos, I’ll be representing LEO Sunday evening alongside Sara “The Bar Belle” Havens in a taco-eating contest to the death. OK, it’s not really to the death, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I die after jamming a bunch of tacos down my throat as part of the Stampede Race Series.

We’ll be taking on a host of other taco lovers, including media types and even some reality TV stars, so come down to Salsarita’s at 285 N. Hubbards Lane and cheer us on. You can eat a few tacos as well and help a good cause at the same time, as 15 percent of sales benefit Dare to Care Food Bank. Get all the details over at survivethestampede.com.