Give Me the Electric Chair
When you order tacos al pastor at Mexico's Deli on Dairy Ashford, the marinated pork and bits of pineapple are carved from a "trompo," a cone of meat on a vertical roaster, on display beside the grill. The tangy pork is served on three small tortillas with a garnish of onions and cilantro, and either a mild and creamy tomatillo and avocado green sauce, or a viciously hot red one made from chiles de árbol. It's one of the best renditions of tacos al pastor in Houston.
Mexico's Deli is a humble little eatery near the intersection of Westheimer and Dairy Ashford in the space where Harlan's hot dog stand used to be. It's a walk-up counter taquería with a dozen or so tables and a strange waterfall fountain that splashes you if you sit too close.
The restaurant was brought to my attention by several readers after I wrote about tacos al pastor and vertical roasters last year ["Top Tacos," September 21, 2006]. Here in Houston, the city health department doesn't allow tacos al pastor to be made from a trompo of raw pork on a vertical roaster in the traditional Mexico City fashion, I reported. To comply with the health code, some restaurants put the cone of seasoned raw pork in the refrigerator and slice some off when the tacos are ordered. It turns out that others, like Mexico's Deli, roast the entire trompo in the oven first. It's okay to have meat out on a vertical roaster if it's already thoroughly cooked, according to the health department. You'd expect this compromise might dry out the taco meat, but Mexico's Deli goes through a trompo so fast, the pork stays pretty juicy. I shared two of the three little tacos with friends on my first visit, and everyone agreed they were excellent. But my largesse left me hungry.
The menu at Mexico's Deli is a big board on the wall, and it's dominated by the Mexican sandwiches called "tortas." There are more than 20 variations to choose from. My first visit was on a Saturday before noon. I hadn't had any breakfast, so the chalkboard special of "torta lomito Argentino," a steak-and-egg sandwich, sounded great. It featured a thin slice of beef tenderloin, a fried egg, a thin slice of ham, mozzarella, avocado and tomato, all on a huge bun spread with refried black beans. The sandwich was awesome. It was so big, I took half of it home.
On that visit, I also sampled the taquería's desserts, a generous serving of standard-issue tres leches cake, and an unusual flan with a pecan praline in the baking cup underneath the custard, which made for a simple but delicious twist on the old favorite.
On the way to the parking lot, I happened to notice the restaurant's original menu board propped out in the window beside the front door. On the old sign, each of the tortas had a prison-related name. There was the "fugitiva," the "convicta" and the "tortura." Others were named for famous Latin American prisons, including Guantánamo. The grilled cheese sandwich was called the "silla eléctrica" (electric chair).
On my second visit, the owner of Mexico's Deli, Alex Garcia, was taking orders at the cash register. He laughed when I ordered a "cell number 6," the name for the chorizo, cheese and mushroom torta on the old menu. Thanks to its "Sloppy Joe" consistency and the aggressive spiciness of the sausage, this turned out to be my favorite torta on the menu.
Along with my chorizo sandwich, I sampled a surprisingly sophisticated cilantro-and-blue cheese soup. Served in a colorful melamine bowl, the soup was garnished with crispy red and yellow fried tortilla strips that were the perfect compliment to the gooey melted cheese. I also tried my lunchmate's roasted pork torta, which wasn't as exciting as my chorizo. We shouldn't have ordered the hearty black bean soup, because you get a cup free with every sandwich anyway. I'm not really sure if it was soup or charro beans, or what the difference is between the two.
It was a beautiful day, so we ate al fresco at one of the restaurant's two picnic tables overlooking a weedy parking lot. When Alex delivered our soups and tortas, I asked him, "What's with the prison names for the sandwiches?"
In the 1970s, Alex explained, he opened his first taquería in Mexico City. Spoofing the hit musical La Cage aux Folles (The Bird Cage), he called the restaurant La Jaula de Tacos (the taco cage). In keeping with the "cage" theme, the tortas were named after prisons. The incarceration tortas were a big hit, and Alex went on to open four more restaurants in Mexico City. But his mini-chain collapsed with the devaluation of the peso during the Carlos Salinas de Gortari regime. So Alex came to Houston to start over.
On my third visit, I tried a Mexico City specialty called a pambazo, which is a torta made on bread that's been dipped in a chile sauce. Mexico City's pambazo is stuffed with potatoes, chorizo, sour cream and cheese. I ate the incredibly messy sandwich with a knife and fork. Alex told me that in Mexico City, people eat pambazos with their hands, but only outdoors, usually at the bullfights. It's sort of the equivalent of a Texas chili dog, but with the chili on the outside of the bun.
One of the nice little touches here are the rotating selections of aguas frescas. Along with the usual fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, Jamaica and tamarind-flavored drinks, I have also seen such interesting combinations as orange with beets and lime with celery. The coffee isn't bad, but unfortunately it's only served in Styrofoam cups.
The most surprising meal I had at Mexico's Deli was breakfast. I tried eggs en mole poblano, a wondrous stack of tortillas, black beans, ham and cheese topped with two fried eggs and a thick torrent of chocolate-colored mole sauce. I have never even heard of this combination, and it was one of the best Mexican breakfasts I've ever had.
My companion went for the huevos Motuleños, a traditional egg dish from the Yucatán. The usual preparation is a tostada coated with refried black beans topped with ham, eggs, cheese, sour cream and peas. Mexico's Deli starts with a chilaquile-like jumble of crispy tortilla strips and black beans, then tops that with the ham and eggs and cheese, with a salsa over the top. Thankfully, they forgot about the peas, which are always the worst part of the dish.
We were so content with our breakfasts, we sat and sipped our watermelon aguas frescas and Styrofoam cups of coffee for another 15 minutes while we watched the traffic on Dairy Ashford. Mexico's Deli doesn't open until nine a.m., so it isn't a very practical place for breakfast. But these sensational egg dishes are also available in the afternoons.
Alex Garcia at Mexico's Deli has literally transplanted a Mexico City taquería to Dairy Ashford. And he hasn't compromised the recipes to gringo tastes. It's a place to go for great tacos and huge, satisfying sandwiches, not for fancy sit-down dinners. But if you want to experience "authentic" Mexican street food in Houston, you can't do any better.
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