After loading up on produce at Canino's on Airline Drive, I headed for the vast parking lot out back where the produce is unloaded. That's where my favorite taco truck, Taqueria Tacambaro, is usually parked.
It was 8:30 in the morning and I was thinking breakfast tacos, but Maria Rojas, the head chef, told me she didn't have any eggs. The choices were fajitas and chicken. I almost gave up and headed over to the Triple A diner for a short stack. But then I noticed Rojas was cooking up something else on the taco-truck griddle.
"What's that?" I asked Rojas, pointing to a pile of sizzling white meat chunks.
2520 Airline Drive (behind Canino Produce).
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
Sweetbreads taco: $1.50
Tripe taco: $1.50
"Mollejas," she said, which is Spanish for sweetbreads.
"Que bueno!" I said. "It must be my lucky day!" I promptly ordered a molleja taco, a roasted jalapeño and a Diet Coke.
Veal sweetbreads are an organ meat that comes from the thymus glands or pancreas of a calf. They are a favorite of French chefs, but they are tricky to prepare. You have to soak them and remove all of the membrane and connective tissue before you cook them. After cleaning, some chefs poach them lightly and press them under a weighted board to give them a dense texture. Then they finish them in a sauté pan with a sauce. Others go for a springy texture. Veal sweetbreads are also ground up in patés and sausages.
Maria Rojas cooks her perfectly cleaned sweetbreads on the taco-truck griddle and serves them on two hot corn tortillas with some caramelized onion and chopped cilantro on top. The morning I was there, she put the sweetbread taco and a half of a lime on a Styrofoam plate and set out beside it a little red plastic bowl full of a mysterious dark hot sauce.
The sweetbreads were white and just barely cooked through. They had a delightfully mild flavor and a lovely fluffy texture that might remind you of the filling of a German veal sausage, like bratwurst or weisswurst. The tartness of the lime juice and sweetness of the onion were beautiful complements. But it was the addition of that dark brown salsa that made me close my eyes and sigh.
The chocolate-colored salsa looked like it was going to be hellishly hot, but in fact it was astonishingly rich and mellow. Rojas said it was made out of nothing but cascabel chiles. The dried cascabels had been soaked until soft, pureed and lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and maybe a touch of garlic. It was a purist's salsa. I dipped each bite of taco in the brown stuff and savored every bite.
I was the only person at the stainless-steel counter, and I was in no hurry. It was nice to stand in the shade and watch the trucks full of watermelons and yellow squash get unloaded. The first taco de mollejas was so good, I ordered another one.
What a sublime way to start the day.
As I was driving home, I remembered the first time I ate at Taqueria Tacambaro nearly six years ago. I had a taco with spicy pork al pastor, crisped up in a frying pan and served with raw onion and cilantro. Then I had a fajita quesadilla made with skirt steak and a big pinch of crumbly Mexican white cheese in the middle of a flour tortilla. Rojas calls this a fajita quesadilla, despite the fact that the Mexican cheese never melts enough to hold the tortilla together. I also had a gordita, made with a thick masa cake split in half and stuffed with homemade refried beans and Mexican cheese.
The guy next to me at the stand-up counter was from Toluca, Mexico. His name was Narcisso Santos. He said he works in Conroe now, but whenever he passes through Houston, he stops at this taco truck for lunch. He was eating tripe tacos, or tripitas, as he called them. I asked him about the other taco trucks in the same parking lot. I was thinking maybe each one had a specialty. But he was a loyal fan of Taqueria Tacambaro. "Éste es el famoso," I remember him saying, tapping a finger on the stainless-steel counter.
After eating at Taqueria Tacambaro, I jumped to the conclusion that some of the best Mexican food in the city was being served at taco trucks. So for the next six years, I sampled dozens of taco trucks. The results were mixed.
I have purchased some fine roasted chicken dinners from taco trucks, but in truth, they were neither better nor cheaper than the roasted chicken sold in Colombian fast food outlets like Dodo's on Richmond. I got my first birria, or stewed goat, in Houston from a taco truck. But the truck is gone now, and I have found better birria at Casa de Leon on Long Point. Jarro Cafe, one of my favorite Houston taquerias, started out as a taco truck. In fact, they still operate the original truck in their parking lot. But there are also empty taco trucks with "for sale" signs in their windows cluttering the streets in some parts of the city.
City Council is debating taco-truck regulations again. Restaurants are complaining that they aren't supposed to be stationary. And they aren't supposed to be dumping their grease in city sewers. (Maybe they could get in touch with Willie Nelson and donate their grease for biofuel?)
I used to be a champion of taco trucks, but I find I am no longer so enamored of them. It's not the cleanliness or environmental issues that changed my mind. It's the sad fact that most of the food I've eaten from them has been lackluster. Sometimes I walk up to the window of one, get a whiff of rancid grease and walk away. I remember ordering tacos from a truck on Bissonnet where the woman behind the counter never stopped talking on her cell phone while she cooked. She relit the burners when I ordered, so the griddle wasn't hot. The tacos she gave me were so greasy the bag was dripping. I didn't dare put it in my car. I dropped the whole thing in the garbage can unopened.
But when I find a great taco truck, I can still get romantic about it. An exceptional meal at a taco truck is more satisfying to me than a great meal at a famous restaurant, because it's so unexpected. After my sweetbread taco breakfast, I was so eager to share my discovery, I immediately called my French friend Bernard Brunon and asked him what he was doing for lunch.
Bernard is a Houston artist who grew up not far from Roanne, France, home of the famous restaurant Maison Troisgros. He once tutored one of the Troisgros children in exchange for a meal at the restaurant. He is, as they say in France, a gourmet.
"Do you like sweetbreads?" I asked him on the phone.
"Yes, if they are properly prepared," he said. "But I had some at a bistro in Montrose the other day and they were terrible -- tough and chewy. They didn't clean them right."
"And what about tripe?" I asked the picky Frenchman.
"Same thing. If they are cooked right, they are wonderful, but I have never had decent tripe in Houston."
"Bernard, have you ever eaten at a taco truck?" I asked him.
"No," he said. Then he corrected himself. "Well, once they hired one for an art opening, but otherwise I have always avoided them. Why do you ask?"
I talked Bernard into meeting me for lunch at Taqueria Tacambaro.
We met at 11:30 a.m., a mere two and a half hours after my breakfast. I ordered two sweetbread tacos and two tripe tacos. I am normally not much of a tripe fan myself, but I figured Narcisso Santos probably wouldn't be driving all the way down here from Conroe to eat tripe tacos unless they were spectacular.
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Bernard took one bite of the tripe and expressed his amazement. "It tastes just like a good andouillette," he said, referring to the tripe sausage made in France. I've eaten some sketchy andouillette in France, so from my point of view, the tacos de tripita at Taqueria Tacambaro were far better than andouillette. The tubes of tripe were soft, with only the faintest offal flavor. A spritz of lime juice and a dollop of piquant green serrano sauce set off the tang of the intestines brilliantly.
Bernard was equally impressed with the sweetbreads, even though they weren't white and fluffy as they had been in the early morning. Now they were darker brown and denser, with a deeper flavor and a meatier texture. But they still tasted fantastic.
"These are the best sweetbreads I have had in Houston," Bernard said. "The chef from that bistro needs to come over here and take some lessons."
Bernard drank a mandarin Jarritos with his meal, and I had another Diet Coke. And we decided to do it again soon. But next time, we agreed, we would bring along a bottle of wine. I'm thinking a well-chilled Tavel Rosé would be just the wine to pair with tacos de mollejas.