Keep on Trucking
The stupendous cochinita pibil tacos are a buck and a half apiece at Tacos La Bala #2 on Bellaire, across the street from Pico's Mex-Mex. The shreds of fall-apart tender, slow-cooked pork are topped with raw onions and chopped cilantro (by request) and swimming in a spicy orange broth that runs out of the taco when you bite it. It's like a taco filled with pork and chile soup.
These tacos might amaze you, but the cochinita pibil torta will shock and awe you. The pork is generously packed on fresh telera bread with all the lettuce, tomato, avocado and cheese condiments you expect in a proper torta, with a large slice of ham laid over top for good measure. The telera bread absorbs the hot orange chile juices that you lose when you get the taco, creating a terrific soupy sandwich that you have to eat fast before it falls apart. I split one with a friend, which turned out to be a wise strategy. We each finished our half sandwich before it got too wet, and we had room left over to sample some other stuff.
In three visits to Tacos La Bala #2, I liked the cochinita pibil tacos and tortas best — and everybody else I took along went wild for the juicy pork too. But my dining companions complained about the lack of sides and snacks. There are no chips and salsa, and no chile con queso or guacamole salad either. This is probably because Tacos La Bala #1 was a taco truck. Or at least that's what the lady behind the counter told me.
She said that the owner of Tacos La Bala #2 started with a torta stand in Tampico called Tortas de la Barda La Bala. In fact, there is a photo of the Tampico sandwich stand hanging on the wall of the restaurant. It appears to be near a commercial shipping wharf. There is also a photo of a taco truck with the name Tacos La Bala hanging in the hallway between the kitchen and the restrooms. Maybe that's why the menu of Tacos La Bala lacks the niceties of most sit-down restaurants. It is essentially a sandwich-stand or taco-truck menu.
I love this kind of cheap, authentic Mexican food, but not all of my dining companions were on the same page. They all agreed that Tacos La Bala was clean and neat, but not all of them loved the utilitarian atmosphere. "When I go out to lunch with my friends, I want to go to a hip, comfortable restaurant," one woman explained as she finished her taco. "Not a place that feels like a cafeteria."
Many Houstonians first became aware of interior Mexican dishes like cochinita pibil at Pico's Mex-Mex, a well-appointed Mexican restaurant across the street. Pico's provides the iced tea, margaritas, chips and salsa, nachos and all the other Tex-Mex conventions Houstonians have come to expect. But the restaurant's claim to fame is its interior Mexican cooking. The cochinita pibil entrée there sells for $14.25.
I like iced tea and guacamole salad as much as the next Texan, but I can't resist a bargain. I say we salute the groundbreaking efforts of Pico's owner Arnaldo Richards and thank him for teaching us about Mexican food. Without pioneers like Richards, we might not appreciate what a great deal the $1.50 cochinita pibil tacos across the street really are.
Too bad all the tacos on La Bala's menu aren't as tasty as the ones stuffed with cochinita pibil. The biggest disappointments were the breakfast tacos. The chorizo-and-egg taco was made with American-style pan sausage instead of Mexican chorizo. And the eggs were overcooked and dry in each of the three breakfast tacos I tried.
The tacos al trompo looked like a good bet since there was a big homemade-looking trompo turning on a vertical roaster in the kitchen. But the trompo meat was dry and tough. I was pleasantly surprised by a juicy, overstuffed chicken fajita burrito. I ordered it for my daughter, but ended up eating half of it myself when she pushed the plate aside.
The barbacoa tacos were very good — if I complained about anything, it would be that there was too much gelatinous cheek meat on each taco. The lengua tacos were better. I even got a friend who never eats tongue to admit the flavor was excellent — although he still couldn't quite get over the texture and appearance. Yes, those really are little pieces of tongue in there.
On a lunchtime visit, I tried the most expensive item on the menu, an $8 bowl of caldo de camarones, Mexican shrimp soup. The soup came with a big plate of rice, several corn tortillas and the traditional garnishes of raw onions, chopped cilantro and lime wedges. Eating the soup was a little aggravating, since the shrimp are unshelled and the carrots and potatoes are in huge pieces that you can't fit in your mouth. But if you are a fan of Mexican caldo de res, you're familiar with the disassembly drill.
The shrimp are cooked in the shell for the same reason that the beef in the caldo de res is cooked on the bone — it adds a lot of flavor. I fished all of the shrimp out of the soup and piled them on the rice so I could remove the shells. And I put the carrots and potatoes on the rice plate too so I could cut the vegetables up. And I repeatedly burnt my fingers trying to peel the shrimp before they were cool enough. When the shrimp were shelled and the vegetables were cut into pieces, I dumped them into the broth along with all the rice, onions and cilantro. And I squeezed the lime over the top.
When my tedious task was complete and the soup was cool enough to eat, my tablemate stole the bowl and helped herself to a generous portion. "You know, this is really good soup," she smiled as she ate a big bite of shrimp, dunking one of the corn tortillas in the broth. Eventually I got the bowl back, and I had to agree. It was a lovely, if labor-intensive, meal.
The signature item at Tacos La Bala isn't a taco. It's the "original torta de la barda" of Tampico. Legend has it the sandwich was created for Tampico's dockworkers around 1950 by a man named José María Bracamontes. Bracomontes's sandwich stand was located by the fence that marked the legal barrier (barda) of the port authority dock area.
The original recipe for the hearty sandwich includes carne deshebrada (shredded beef), freshly fried chorizo, chicharrones in chile verde sauce, thin-sliced ham, headcheese, American cheese, Mexican cheese, refried black beans, lettuce, tomato, and avocado on a French bread roll.
Several Houston taco trucks, including La Jaiba on Bellaire, specialize in Tampico's famous sandwich. But the version at Tacos La Bala is truly exceptional. It's an authentic Mexican dish with a long and colorful history, and at $4.50, it's one that we can all afford.
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