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Wild or Mild

100% Taquito re-creates the Mexican taco-truck experience -- sanitized for your protection. The kitchen is spotlessly clean.
Troy Fields

The luminous orange grease tints the white bowl above the dark red broth. I unwrap the aluminum foil that contains the warm corn tortillas and fish some of the soft stewed meat out of the liquid with a fork. As I arrange the meat on the tortilla, the pungent aroma of goat meat fills the air. Another foil package contains chopped onions and cilantro, which I strew on top of my taco just before I roll it up. I dunk each bite in the spicy broth, the way my father used to dunk doughnuts in his coffee.

Each bite lubricates my lips with hot goat grease. The piquant and bitter taste of dried chile de arbol in the broth sets off the gamy goat filling and raw-onion topping. It's the most intensely flavored taco I've eaten in years. When all the tacos are gone, I slurp up the broth with a spoon.

Birria de chivo, goat meat stewed in a spicy broth, is native to Guadalajara, but it's also a favorite street food in Mexico City. In Spanish, birria literally means "mess," and chivo means goat. To make it, the meat is cooked in a broth until it's falling apart.

I first tasted it at a little birriería (as a birria restaurant is known) in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. While Mexican cabrito (kid goat) dishes have been popular in Texas for the last 400 years or so, I'd never seen the birria style of goat cookery here before.

Then, about a month ago, I was driving a little too fast, in a hurry to make an appointment, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the word "birria" on a taco truck. I made a mental note to come back and check it out. But unfortunately, I forgot exactly where in southwest Houston I'd seen it. I searched for weeks. One day I drove the entire length of Bissonnet, from Loop 610 to State Highway 6, looking for that damn taco truck. While I was searching for the birria de chivo truck, I tried the food from a lot of other taco trucks.

There are somewhere between 600 and 800 licensed mobile kitchens operating in Harris County. They're approved by the health department, and each must display a valid inspection sticker. The taco trucks are supposed to return to a commissary to be cleaned and restocked every night. But complaints are frequently filed about trucks that hook up to local electric and water sources and seem to be semi-permanent. Some of them no longer have wheels.

Taco-truck food ranges from stellar to abysmal. There used to be a taco truck behind the farmers' market on Airline called Taqueria Tacambaro that served spectacular Michoacan-style tacos. But the last time I went there, it didn't show up. I had a pretty good Frito pie at a truck parked in front of the Food Mart at Synott and Bissonnet. And I took home some decent roasted chicken from a truck on Long Point. But when this kind of food is bad, it's really bad.

I got the worst tacos I've ever sampled at a truck labeled El Michoacano No. 1 parked alongside a Texaco on Bissonnet. The woman who made the food didn't even put down her cell phone when she took my order. She dipped tortillas in oil and put them on a cold griddle that she turned on while she talked on the phone. The tortillas were soaking wet with grease, and the griddle wasn't even lukewarm. She got some nasty fajita meat out of a foil-covered container and spread it on the cold tortillas, then wrapped them up and handed them to me. I took one bite and threw the package in the garbage can in front of her. She was evidently unimpressed, as she just kept talking on the phone.

I finally found the birria truck on Bellaire one day when I was heading to Chinatown. This time, I pulled over immediately. The elusive taco truck calls itself La Raza Tacos, and it parks at the corner of Redding and Bellaire in the parking lot of a convenience store. It's run by the Ramos family of Mexico City, and they take great pride in their food.

Instead of birria tacos, which go for $1.50 each, I talked them into putting $8 worth of goat meat and broth into a giant Styrofoam container and wrapping up the tortillas on the side so the tacos wouldn't get soggy. I also sampled their torta chilango, a Mexico City-style sandwich made with fajita meat and chorizo with lots of bright orange grease.

I was having a few friends over, so I put the birria de chivo in a bowl with the tortillas alongside and set it out on the table. The taco-truck takeout food was a huge hit at this cocktail fest, not only because of the acute chile burn, the goaty aroma and the funky flavor, but also because nobody had ever heard of birria before.

 


100% Taquito, located on the Southwest Freeway access road near Buffalo Speedway between Rice Village and Montrose, has a take-home menu that employs some pretty big words: "Mexico City...is the heart of Mexico. In its streets the cuisine from every region of Mexico merges in a festival of flavor. Served from trailers, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and tiny stands, tacos reign as king...100% Taquito is the only place in Houston where you can truly experience authentic Mexican food."

As a restaurant concept, 100% Taquito is wonderfully executed, taking its inspiration from the streets of Mexico City. Here, you order your tacos from a window in what looks like a taco trailer. The dining area in front of the faux taco trailer looks like a stone-paved street, complete with yellow curbs, street lamps and a green-and-white Volkswagen taxi. The taxi license bears the name Chente Fox and a photo of Mexico's current president.

I order several varieties of tacos to go and wander around while I wait for my order.

My mother, who's a stickler for sanitation, would never eat tacos from a truck. "Too dirty," she would say. Many of my friends are dubious about taco trucks for the same reason.

"How often do they wash their hands?" one woman asked me.

But at 100% Taquito, the cooks wear hairnets and Sysco disposable latex gloves. And the kitchen is spotlessly clean. It's a Mexican taco-truck experience, sanitized for your protection. And that's a good thing -- for the most part. Unfortunately, some of 100% Taquito's food tastes washed out, too.

On my first visit, I noticed that the barbacoa was neither Tex-Mex barbacoa de cabeza (cow head) nor the marinated lamb steamed in maguey leaves typical of the interior. "What kind of meat is it?" I asked the lady behind the counter.

"It's brisket," she said. I don't know what part of Mexico calls watery brisket "barbacoa," but whether it's authentic or not, it tastes like bland boiled beef. And the tinga (stewed beef), the woman confirmed, is exactly the same brisket meat with some spices added. The chicken quesadillas taste like boneless, skinless chicken breast chunks with melted cheese. This isn't the tasty free-range chicken you find in Mexico. These taco fillings taste like generic Sysco frozen meats with very little seasoning.

Granted, 100% Taquito is way ahead of Taco Bell and Taco Cabana, but I wonder how it compares to an actual Mexico City taco truck like the one the Ramos family runs. So I put together a take-home taco taste test.

For this occasion, I purchase 100% Taquito's tacos mixtos, an assortment that features three tacos, one stuffed with asada (fajita meat), one with tinga, and one with barbacoa, along with an order of tacos al pastor (fried-pork tacos). And from the La Raza Tacos truck, I get a pair of birria de chivo tacos and one suadero (fajita meat) taco. I cut some of the tacos in half and then my teenage daughter and I sample them all for dinner.

100% Taquito's tacos al pastor, with the marinated pork fried crispy and served with lots of little chunks of pineapple and a topping of chopped onion and cilantro, are excellent. But all the tacos from 100% Taquito come wrapped in single corn tortillas that have hardly a speck of oil on them. The tacos from La Raza come on double corn tortillas that are smeared with delicious orange grease.

The grease and goat are all too weird for my daughter. "Goat tastes okay, Dad, but I can only eat a bite or two," she tells me. She loves the 100% Taquito tacos. When I object that they taste bland, she says that's why she likes them.

Authenticity is a powerful thing. Not enough and you get boring food, too much and you frighten the children. You have to find the level that's appropriate to your audience. Do you want spicy, greasy goat meat tacos from a real Mexico City taco truck parked out on Bellaire, or bland brisket tacos from a fake Mexico City taco truck with excellent sanitary standards? My recent experiences have convinced me that there's a time and place for both.

My daughter suggests that I doctor up the bland 100% Taquito tacos with some of the little plastic containers of green and red salsa that she finds in the bottom of the bag along with a pile of napkins. "You can always add more spicy stuff," she tells me, "but you can never take it away." , truck parked at Bellaire and Redding, 832-724-1814. Irregular hours; closed Sundays.

 

, 3245 Southwest Freeway, 713-665-2900. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Cafe


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