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"Super Tortas, Taqueria, Huaraches." These words are painted in bright green letters on the side of La Bamba Meat Market. They catch my eye every time I drive down Washington Avenue.
I know that a torta is a sandwich, and I know that a taqueria makes tacos. But huaraches? The huaraches I know are those Mexican sandals with woven leather uppers and soles cut from tires, as in the Beach Boys' immortal lyric "You see 'em wearing their baggies / huarache sandals too." In my hippie youth, I bought a new pair every year on my spring break pilgrimage to San Miguel de Allende. But what do huaraches have to do with food?
I pull into the parking lot of La Bamba Meat Market one afternoon and study the paintings. I especially like the cow and pig cartoons on either side of the name "La Bamba." I also like the painted offer of "3 tacos, 1 gratis!" So I go inside and find the cook, Maria Villanueva.
Nobody speaks any English, so I ask in my best broken Spanish, "You conoce los zapatos, huaraches ¿Pero, que es un huarache para comer?" Maria tries to explain, but when she realizes I'm not following her, she offers to make me one. The price is $2.99.
So I shrug. "¿Porque no?"
Maria reaches under a counter and pulls out a wooden contraption that looks like a tortilla press, except it's shaped more like a shoe box. Then she gets out some fresh masa. (I am liking this is already.) She takes a big glob of masa and centers it between two sheets of plastic and starts pressing the lever on top, pausing a couple of times to coax the masa into shape. What emerges is a big, thick fresh masa creation the size and shape of a shoe sole.
The huarache is then put on the hot griddle with a little oil. Maria cooks this tortilla-in-the-shape-of-a-shoe-sole until it has a nice brown crustiness and smells heavenly. Then she puts it on a plate, spreads it with a base of refried beans and asks me which taco toppings I want. I look over the steam-table selections and decide to go with the beef in verde sauce. On top of the large pile of beef, she mounds shredded lettuce, onion and, at my request, chilies. The antojito (the word means "little whim" or snack, but in Mexico it refers specifically to foods made from the corn dough called masa) is looking less and less like a sandal and more and more like a mountain, especially as Maria is now snow-capping the summit with crumbled queso fresco and a drizzle of crema.
Do not attempt, as I did, to scale a peak such as this one without the right equipment. Maria chastises me for attempting to pick the thing up and bite it. She sits me down with a knife and fork. I carve off a huge bite and begin to moan as I chew. Fresh masa antojitos hot off the grill are a thing of rare wonder in our modern world, where tortillas are born in machines. The flavor and aroma of toasted corn come from the crunchy crust, but that texture gives way to a creamy hot interior, slightly chewy, and warms your stomach with starchy heartiness as it mingles with all the flavors of meat and sauce and toppings that it carries along.
Paper napkins fly like Tibetan prayer flags as I tackle the slope of masa, beans, beef, lettuce, chilies and cheese. But a little past the halfway point, my stamina begins to falter. I set down my fork. The huarache at La Bamba is one of the most fabulous Mexican antojitos I have ever had. It is also by far the largest.
"Does anyplace else in Houston have huaraches?" I ask Maria.
"No," she says. "Solamente aquí."
I take a break and sit back with an imported Mexican Coke and soak up the ambience. I estimate the restaurant's seating capacity at 14; the room consists of the booth where I am sitting, one other booth, a table with four chairs, and a couple of stools by the steam table. On top of the antique white enamel-and-glass meat case there is a Virgin of Guadalupe novena and several jars of El Caporal pickled pork rind. On the grocery store shelves, I see cones of piloncillo, boxes of Mexican pasta and cans of Jumex fruit juice. There is a baby blue piñata dangling above the soft-drink case. At the cash register, you can buy Mexico Express Money Orders, incense sticks and lottery tickets.
The guy already sitting in the booth when I take a seat is named Julio Lopez, and he is eating a pork chop. He comes from Guatemala and has been in Houston for 17 years; it is obvious from his bespattered attire that he is a house painter. After I interrogate him, he asks me if I want to pay for his lunch. Tightwad journalist that I am, I decline. I pick up my fork and take another bite, but it's no use. I couldn't finish this huarache if I stayed here another hour.
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