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The Mother Flavor

With its fresh masa and mole straight from Puebla, La Bamba Meat Market gets in touch with its ancestral tastes


On my second visit to La Bamba, I ask to sample Maria's tacos. And of course, as any thrift-conscious person would, I ask for the "buy three and get one free" deal. Today's offerings are chicharrones, barbacoa, beef in verde, a ground meat and potato picadillo, chicken in onions and peppers, chicken in mole poblano, pork in verde sauce and roast pork in pasilla sauce. I ask for the two chicken toppings, the pork in pasilla and the barbacoa. I grab a guava-flavored Jarritos soda out of the cooler. Maria sits down and eats her own lunch after she hands me my tacos; it gives me a chance to quiz her in detail as I eat each one.

The silky barbacoa meat melts in my mouth. She steams it for ten hours in an oven double boiler called a baño maria, Spanish for bain marie, she says. I spoon on some of Maria's homemade red sauce made with tomatoes, onions and the hot, shiny red chili arbols. It is one of the best barbacoa tacos I've ever had, although unfortunately, I have never eaten the traditional pit-cooked version.

Climb every huarache: You need the right utensils to scale this mountainous meal.
Troy Fields
Climb every huarache: You need the right utensils to scale this mountainous meal.

There is a scene in the movie Giant in which Elizabeth Taylor goes to her first barbecue on the Reata ranch. It's a very hot day, and she is already woozy as she watches the Mexican cook unwrap a canvas package. When he reveals the cooked cow's head inside, she promptly faints. In the old days, canvas or maguey-wrapped cows' heads were buried in a barbecue pit and cooked overnight. Pit-cooked barbacoa can still be found at a few places along the border, but that original version of the dish is fast disappearing. Nowadays in South Texas, barbacoa means baked, steamed or boiled cow's head. This meat is very soft and a little gelatinous, which makes for a wonderful taco.

The chicken in mole poblano is very rich. I ask Maria if she uses a bottled sauce. "No," she replies with a finger wag.

"We bring mole paste up in plastic bags from Puebla," she says as if I were a dolt. Where else would you get mole poblano?

"Wanna sell any?" I ask eagerly. This earns me a laugh and more finger wagging. Apparently the only way I am going to get my hands on this mole is to come back and eat more tacos. The stewed chicken tacos are also very good, but they don't hold a candle to the others.

I have saved the best for last. The roasted pork in pasilla makes my nostrils flare. It is spicy hot, garlicky and has enough pork fat to please even Emeril Lagasse. Pasillas have a fascinating bitterness that gives the sweetness and heat another dimension. With the garlic, onion and tomato to round it out, it is a superb Mexican chili sauce. Maria says she makes the pasilla sauce just like the hot sauce, by cooking onions, garlic and tomatoes and then adding the pasilla. (I bet the chilies are toasted, then softened in liquid, then pureed, and then the puree is fried in the fat, but I could be wrong.) The sauce is nearly black, and I feel the faint burn on my lips right away. The meat is some kind of fatty pork roast (shoulder? Boston butt?) that's slow roasted then pulled apart and braised in the pasilla sauce.

Now here's the really contrary part of this review: Right in the middle of my pork-and-pasilla taco, I get a huge hunk of fatty gristle complete with disgusting veins. I have to spit it out. Gross, huh? And yet, this is still the taco I like the best.

A food critic is supposed to complain about these things, I guess. But in all honesty, I can't. When I find a little chicken bone or pork gristle in my taco, I know I am eating real food.

Let me explain. Once upon a time, I co-owned a little deli where we made chicken salad. Every morning we cooked a couple of chickens, cooled them and then pulled them apart by hand. Then I hired a kitchen manager who thought this was archaic. Instead, she ordered precooked, preshredded chicken from our purveyor. It was very convenient, and it tasted like chalk. I told her to go back to cooking the chickens fresh. She said no. So I fired her and cooked the chickens myself. From then on, when people at the deli complained about getting a chicken bone in their salad, I told them to count themselves lucky.

In my opinion, we are lucky to have handmade Mexican food like the huaraches at La Bamba. I believe that hot, fresh-cooked masa is the mother flavor of Mesoamerican cooking, a flavor that has been connected to this continent for more than 2,000 years. And it's not easy to find anymore.

Outside in the parking lot, I look up at all the words in big green letters on the wall again. "Authentic" isn't one of them. I wonder if real authenticity is always unconscious.

La Bamba Meat Market, 4115 Washington Avenue, (713)862-3685.

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