We could smell carnitas frying half a block down Patton Street when we got out of the car. It was a quarter to 11 on Sunday morning and the sidewalks in front of Gerardo's Drive-in Grocery were a street party. There were families carrying their food home in white paper bags, and then there were the people who just couldn't wait.
A couple of women who were eating tamales and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups were using the newspaper machines right outside the front door as stand-up counters. Another guy had opened up a container of barbacoa meat, some salsas and a foil package of tortillas and lined them up along the windowsill under the burglar bars where he stood making tacos. It was all making me hungry.
"Gerardo's, Barbacoa, Vi, Sa, Do" read the sign out front. Which means that barbacoa is available on Friday (viernes), Saturday (sábado) and Sunday (domingo) only. Ten years ago, that was standard policy all over town. But these days, you see barbacoa and every other variety of Mexican street food offered 24/7 at taco trucks and gas station taquerías all over the city.
So how does Gerardo's still manage to draw such a crowd for their weekend specials, I wondered as I shouldered my way inside. When I got up to the meat counter, my question was answered.
At other taquerías and carnicerías, the "mystery meats" get a little crusty in the stainless steel bins on the steam tables. You might have trouble finding something that looks appetizing. But at Gerardo's you have the opposite problem —all the meats look so good, you want to eat everything. And believe me, I have tried.
On my first weekend visit, I got a half a pound of Gerardo's famous carnitas, crispy fried pork chunks with just enough grease to make the corn tortillas slippery. We got some of the salsas and condiments in little plastic cups that were lined up on the counter and sat down at one of the six tables inside the store.
For beverages, you have your choice of soft drinks from the refrigerator cases and coffee or Mexican hot chocolate (made from water rather than milk) from a pair of Thermos dispensers. I made a do-it-yourself Mexican mocha by filling my Styrofoam cup half way up with coffee and topping it off with hot chocolate.
I liked the carnitas with the tomato and jalapeño salsa. I also tried some of the dark brown Texas-style barbacoa, which is made from steamed cattle cabezas. Gerardo's steams the seasoned cow heads in giant stainless steel vats that retain the broth. The gelatinous meat is satin slick on the tongue, and exquisite with Gerardo's tart green tomatillo and serrano salsa.
I also tried the fried sweetbreads called mollejas on that first visit. They were a little overcooked and dry for my tastes, but I managed to eat a couple tacos anyway.
On a second weekend visit, two companions and I sat down at a table with a dozen fat tamales, a pound of barbacoa de borrego (barbecued mutton), a pile of tortillas and assorted condiments. The tamales weren't as slippery and unctuous as I like them. Everybody is afraid of lard these days and the quality of tamales is suffering as a result. I opened a corn shuck and drenched one with some of Gerardo's bright orange salsa. The tamale was nicely moistened, but there were tears in my eyes and flames coming from my nose as I ate it. I am guessing it was a habanero salsa.
The barbacoa de borrego was unique — the chunks of meat were falling-apart tender and served with a deep red chile broth. It reminded me of the stewed goat dish called birria. Gerardo Lopez, who was working the meat counter that day, told me that they made the barbacoa de borrego with goat meat. That was confusing, since borrego means sheep or mutton. So I asked his father, José Luis Lopez, for an explanation. (The store is named for Gerardo Lopez, but owned by his parents, José Luis and María Lopez.)
"We make the barbacoa de borrego with lamb shoulder and goat meat, mixed half and half, then seasoned with garlic, bay leaves, oregano and chili powder," José Luis said. The meats are steamed slowly for 12 hours in a vessel that captures the juices. Then the meat is stripped from the bone, shredded and steeped in the broth. It's really a cross between birria and barbacoa de borrego, and it's absolutely fabulous — if you like that kind of thing.
"I can't get over that wet dog aroma," one of my tablemates said after trying to eat some on a taco.
I guess I like wet dogs, because I couldn't get enough borrego tacos, which I made on corn tortillas with the spicy meat and the pickled chile pequins that Gerardo's offers alongside the salsas. It's nice to see chile pequins as a condiment selection. They are the traditional peppers of southern Texas and northern Mexico, and the tiny round chiles still grow wild in vacant lots and along fencerows all over the city. The ones you see in stores are harvested by hand in wilderness areas in Sonora. You find them in farmer's markets and meat markets like Gerardo's in the autumn. And they are usually the most expensive chile peppers you can buy.
I also sampled some of Gerardo's fried tripitas, which were too funky for my tastes. The chicharrones weren't that great either. I used to think I just didn't like chicharrones. But I ate some once at a carnicería in Monterrey, Mexico, that changed my mind.
Brenda Garza, a Mexican foodie who was acting as my guide while I researched a story called "Meat and Beer" for Saveur magazine, took me out to breakfast one Saturday morning in Monterrey. I was expecting coffee and pastries. Instead she pulled into the parking lot of Carnes Ramos, the most magnificent carnicería I have ever seen.
The first thing she handed me to eat was a giant caramel-colored hunk of chicharrones hot out of the fryer. I dunked it in jalapeño salsa and took a big bite. The hot pork juice squished out in my mouth. It tasted like six or eight thick slices of bacon stuck together and fried in pure lard with the rind still attached. It was absolutely awesome. I also sampled the carnitas and I bought a couple of bags of carne seca, the dried beef used to make machacados to bring home.
Garza told me that people in Monterrey were very particular about their carnicerías. Since most of the meats you get at a carnicería are already cooked, you are looking for more than a butcher at these Mexican meat markets. You are looking for a butcher who knows how to cook. Since my Carnes Ramos experience, I have been looking for great carnicerías (and great cooks) in Houston.
So far the father and son team of José Luis and Gerardo Lopez are the best I have found. Their chicharrones aren't quite up to Carnes Ramos standards, but most of their cooked meats are stellar. José Luis, who was born in Michoacán, opened the business as a corner grocery in 1977, so I guess he has had some time to practice. The grocery still offers a little produce and some raw meats along with the soft drinks and the chips, but mostly people come for José Luis and Gerardo's cooking.
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Weekend mornings are the most fun, but Gerardo's also serves breakfast specials and plate lunches Monday through Friday. I stopped by for lunch on a recent Monday afternoon around one and had the place pretty much to myself.
The lunch plate comes with your choice of two meats, rice and beans, and tortillas. I picked calabacitas con chuletas, or summer squash with pork chops, which were watery and disappointing. I like my calabacitas cooked to mush so that the squash combines with the tomatoes and chiles to form a thick sauce that you can spread on a taco. Taquería Laredo, a few blocks down Patton, does a much better job with the dish.
But the other meat I ordered on the lunch plate, carne asada in a dark red sauce, made up for everything. In Mexico, carne asada, or asado del puerco, means braised pork. Gerardo's is a slow-roasted pork shoulder in an intense sauce of garlic and dried ancho chiles, seasoned with what tastes like orange peel and bay leaves. The chile sauce is cooked down until it's almost black, but when you spread it on a tortilla it turns a deep brick red. The carne asada at Gerardo's Drive-in Grocery was the best I have eaten in the United States.
Eating in a meat market or a grocery store may sound strange to some people, but it's a tradition around here. The most famous barbecue joints in the state are the old German meat markets of Central Texas. The best burgers in town are turned out by former convenience stores like Christian's and Lankford Grocery. And some of the best Mexican food you will ever eat is sold by the pound at the meat counter at Gerardo's Drive-in Grocery.