Odd Duck Trailer, pork belly sliders
For years, I have been trying to find a crispy taco the way my mom made them when I was a kid. Using tongs, she’d gently fold each corn tortilla in half as it fried to make the perfect taco shell. She would precisely lay each shell on a plate lined with paper towels to dry; then she would move on to the next tortilla. In advance, she’d make her famous picadillo: ground meat, diced onion, garlic, a hint of tomato and her secret weapon—a small amount of mashed potato—to make the ingredients meld and come together. The potato was her invention, or at least I thought it was. It would allow the meat to stay in place in the taco. She also would carefully dice iceberg lettuce, tomato, and onion, and grate cheddar cheese for toppings.
It was a big deal in our family when my mom made these tacos. My brother and I would hover around the kitchen watching her cook, salivating in anticipation of her filling the last taco shell so we could finally dig in.
There was an unspoken joy and love for everything that those tacos meant.
It’s hard for me to write about them without getting emotional about how special it was: the moment we sat down as a family and ate those tacos, the savory interplay of perfectly seasoned picadillo, crunchy taco shell and sharp cheese was heaven. But it was more than that. It was a first generation Mexican-American woman, who learned this recipe from her mother who learned it from her mother, and so on. It was personal history. It was love for her family and much like her using a little mashed potato in her picadillo, it was the glue that helped keep us all together. I have a lifetime of childhood memories around those tacos and they were some of the happiest times in my life.
El Naranjo, tostadas and guacamole
East Side Kings at Grackle, Ramen noodle, pork belly, poached egg, green onion and kimchee
In celebration of Mardi Gras I recently visited Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food Restaurant in Austin. Lola’s Shrimp Po Boy is believed to be one of the best in Texas and I was on a mission to try it.
Knowing Lola’s life story makes me appreciate her even more. It’s an overwhelming story guaranteed to make you cheer for her, (someone call Oprah, please). To top it off, on Sundays she closes her restaurant to the public and opens it to the homeless, devoting the entire day to feeding them.
Warning: You’ll wait way too long for your food (because she makes everything to order, right there on the spot) but you will be rewarded as a result. When your Po Boy arrives don’t even try to fit your mouth around it, just don’t, it’s impossible.
It comes loaded with fried onion rings, large perfectly seasoned battered fried shrimp, tomatoes, pickles, lettuce, secret sauce and a side of your choice. (Choosing just one side is difficult, but the beauty is in realizing that you will need to come back and try other options). The first bite of this sandwich will take you from crispy to sweet and then to heaven. The toasted French bread is crusty, warm and mouth-watering. Every bite will feel like a new discovery.
An added bonus to visiting The Nubian Queen is knowing you did something good for the homeless and for Lola.
What is this delicious taco that with every bite sets off an explosion and contrast of flavors. Oh you sweet, spicy brown bundle of goodness…
This pork filled taco, which originated in Mexico City, is cooked shawarma style, on a spit called a trompo. This style of cooking was a tradition brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico.
The pork is marinated for a few days with chilies, cumin and various other spices. It cooks on the spit with pineapple pieces on top. The juices from the pineapple cook into the meat which tenderizes it. What ensues is a sweet spicy meat. Typically it is served in a small corn tortilla with onion, pineapple, cilantro and a lime slice on the side.
For me, this is the defining taco of any taco truck. It takes a few extra steps to make a really good one. The extra effort is a big payoff in flavor. In Austin there are limited places that make this taco well. Last Saturday me and a small group of friends spent the afternoon sampling different versions at various trucks throughout Austin. I had given up hope of ever finding anything decent until we stopped at La Guera. This little red trailer on South Lamar and Mary is awesome. They make a mean taco al pastor. The first bite filled my mouth with flavor, it went from sharp and tangy to sweet and then ended with a nice touch of heat. It blew me away, my mouth puckered from the lime juice, it had a perfect balance in taste. I was so happy to have stumbled upon this place. If you’re like me and you heart tacos al pastor, check out La Guera, she’s special.