"Can I have the hot dog, please?" I asked the woman inside the bright green Tacos D.F. truck on Long Point at Witte.
"You're ordering a hot dog?" teased my friend Ryan with a chuckle. He'd already placed his order for a pastor taco and a can of Coke at the window. "I thought we were doing a taco truck crawl."
"I'm getting a taco, too!" I grinned sheepishly, before placing an additional order for a taco de cabeza.
"Is that what I think it is?" asked Ryan as he eyed the cabeza. Shreds of fine beef from a cow's head a la barbacoa filled the double corn tortilla that the woman handed through the window, topped with a handful of raw white onions and cilantro leaves. Despite his initial misgivings over its provenance, he ate his half of the taco with relish -- pronouncing it "great" when he was finished -- and I remembered why I'd missed him so much.
Ryan was my best friend in college, where we fancied ourselves a couple of misfits at a highly conservative university that made both of us itchy and desperate with discomfort. We met on the first day of school our freshman year, both of us shunted into an off-campus apartment complex because the dorms were overflowing in the late '90s and, somehow, releasing 17-year-olds into the wild seemed like a good idea at the time.
Ryan couldn't cook. I had roommates that I hated. We bonded over shared meals in his apartment and nights spent commiserating with each other about the limited kinds of politics and religious dogma that teenagers understand while the other kids rushed sororities or went to Bible study. Until last week, I hadn't seen him in ten years.
After a few minutes, the woman in the Tacos D.F. truck handed over my hot dog. It was a small frank inside a small bun, but the whole thing was topped with a confetti blast of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, diced tomatoes, raw onions and pickled jalapeños that packed remarkably little heat. While I mused over the surprisingly sweet peppers, Ryan finished his other taco with gusto.
"Where else can you get real meat that someone bought themselves for $1?" he mused rhetorically. "Where else can you get real meat that someone bought and then cooked right in front of you and handed to you for $1? You can't do that at Taco Bell."
When he'd emailed me that he was coming to Houston for the day, I assumed that it was to visit some of his Texas family he'd left behind after joining the Air Force one day out of the blue during college.
Ryan had been attracted to EOD -- explosives ordnance disposal -- upon enlisting and quickly advanced to Tech Sergeant as he discovered within himself a serious and previously unknown talent for defusing bombs. He'd done four tours since 2002, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He married a lovely German girl in between and finally settled in Florida when he wasn't in some far-flung region with a terp at his side, sweeping for mines in vast deserts.
But the trip to Houston was for the tacos.
"What is the planned criteria/theme of our hunt?" Ryan wrote me in an email a few weeks before he came to town. "Keep an eye out for goat tacos."
We didn't find any goat tacos on Thursday afternoon, but it didn't matter. It was as though a decade hadn't passed and we fell into the same easy rhythms of bullshitting and storytelling that we always had.
"So, you're really a food critic?" he asked as we finished our cans of Coke outside Tacos D.F.
"Yeah," I responded, with a little elaboration after some prompting on his part. Yes, it's my full-time job. Yes, I really do get paid to eat. No, I'm not anonymous. "But I want to hear about your job."
"Most of my friends are dead," Ryan responded immediately, point-blank. "My boss was killed last year." His faced darkened briefly. I didn't know what to say and stammered softly until he started talking again.
"Let's go hit the next one."
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We climbed back into my SUV and drove until he pointed another taco truck out, his eyes scanning both sides of the road in a practiced motion. "Tacos Arcelia. Let's try them next."
Check back tomorrow for part two of They Don't Have Tacos in the Suck.