The Mother Flavor
"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.
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.
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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