Bright red shavings of pork, hot from the grill, were piled on double corn tortilla tacos, each topped with chopped onion and cilantro. There were supposed to be five tacos on the plate, but at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito, they put so much meat on the tacos de trompo, it's difficult to see where one taco starts and the other leaves off. I squeezed a lime quarter over the whole mess and fished out a taco, doubling it over on the way to my mouth. The flavor of the thin, crispy pork was so peppery and salty, it almost tasted like sausage.
I first heard about Taqueria Monterrey last week, after bitching about the gristly tacos al pastor I was served for lunch at Doneraki (see "Tall Tale Tacos," September 14). The waiter at Doneraki blew my mind by recommending a place where I could get real tacos de trompo and drawing me a taco treasure map that explained how to get there. With my paper napkin map in hand, I set off to find the place immediately.
Across I-45 and up Garland Street, I found the stone cottage that houses Taqueria Monterrey. When I got there, I was thrilled to see a sign advertising tacos de trompo. Of course, the first thing I did when I got inside was ask to see the trompo. I expected to see the pork turning slowly on the same kind of vertical roaster they use to heat gyro meat at Middle Eastern restaurants. But there was no such machine in evidence. Instead, the lady behind the grill took me back to the kitchen and showed me a trompo that was kept in the refrigerator. That seemed weird.
Trompo is the Spanish word for the child's toy we call a top. In the parlance of taquerias, a trompo is a stout metal skewer loaded up with strips of marinated pork cut in a rounded shape. The meat is narrow at the bottom and gets thicker higher up, forming the shape of a top. When the trompo revolves on a vertical roaster, the pork is cooked on the outside edges. When you order a taco, the cooked meat is shaved off, then grilled until it's crispy. It's then used to make tacos al pastor (a.k.a. tacos de trompo) and other treats. At least, that's the way it's supposed to be.
I asked the woman behind the counter at Taqueria Monterrey why they didn't use a vertical roaster. She said the city wouldn't let them. Suddenly I realized why trompos seem to be disappearing. The health department must have cracked down on the machines.
But then I started wondering about all the vertical roasters that are obviously still in use at restaurants that serve gyros, or doner, or shawarma or whatever you call the savory ground meat in your favorite Middle Eastern language. Was there some kind of ethnic cuisine discrimination going on here?
Chirag H. Bhatt, chief of the Houston Health Department, solved the mystery with a single phone call. He explained that while he didn't have any facts about specific restaurants in front of him, there was a big difference between Middle Eastern gyro meat and Mexican trompos.
Gyro meat, the seasoned ground beef and lamb that turns on a metal rod in front of a heating element in Middle Eastern restaurants, is delivered already cooked. The vertical roaster is simply warming the meat. For this, the health department requires a minimum temperature of 135 degrees.
But the pork on the trompo at a Mexican restaurant is raw, which means it can't be left to rotate on a vertical roaster and still satisfy the health department, unless it is fully cooked to the internal temperature of 160 degrees. So the traditional Mexican trompo rotating on a vertical roaster is illegal in Houston.
Rolando Guillen, the proprietor of Taqueria Monterrey, told me that the health department first informed him of the violation several years ago at a previous location. Since then, taquerias have adapted by keeping the trompo in the refrigerator. They slice off some raw meat and cook it on the grill when it's ordered. This is as close to the real thing as we can get, he told me in Spanish. "Pero no es lo mismo."
Taqueria Monterrey also has a couple of specialties with the intriguing names "tacos Tlaquepaque" and "tostadas estilo Siberia." A friend and I stopped by for lunch the other day and tried both. San Pedro Tlaquepaque is a town near Guadalajara with a beautiful city square surrounded by bars and restaurants, my friend told me. Tacos Tlaquepaque turned out to be corn tortillas stuffed with soft, stewed beef brisket. The brisket had been cooked in a spicy broth, so the meat was reminiscent of the goat meat cooked in broth called birria, which also is popular in Guadalajara. It was served with a charred chile sauce on the side that gave the otherwise mild meat tacos an aggressive bite.
Tostadas estilo Siberia are named after Taqueria La Siberia, a restaurant in Monterrey, according to our waitress. But she offered no further explanation. The tostada was an extra-crunchy oversize fried corn tortilla, spread with guacamole, topped with a huge pile of finely shredded white-meat chicken and drizzled with lots of sour cream. Maybe it's named after Siberia because the bright white sour cream looks like a snowcap on top of the mountain of chicken, I speculated.
I made a special trip early on a Saturday morning to try the breakfast dishes, but they were a disappointment. The huevos con chorizo were unforgivably bland. And the tacos ma#&150;aneros with beans, potatoes or shredded meat were all inedibly greasy.
In three visits to Taqueria Monterrey, the best things I ate all included meat from the trompo. The tacos de trompo were tops, if you'll excuse the pun. The gringa, a taco made with trompo meat on a flour tortilla garnished with melted cheese and avocado, was also a more delicate approach to the spicy pork.
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They don't list los frijoles pioneros, or pioneer beans, on the menu, but there is a sign advertising them on the wall. It's a bowl of soupy charro beans topped with white cheese and your choice of steak or trompo meat. We got them with trompo meat, of course. The effect was something like bean soup topped with cheese and spicy, crispy bacon. And what could be bad about that?
Another interesting item I discovered on a wall sign at Taqueria Monterrey was called salchicha estilo Monterrey. For years, I have been looking for Latin American hot dogs garnished with bacon, cheese and avocado in Houston. I have heard them called Sonoran hot dogs, and I've also heard they are popular in sports stadiums south of the border. The Monterrey-style salchicha is the closest I have come.
They call the sausage salchicha rioja. It isn't exactly a hot dog -- it looks like a fat red knockwurst. The pleasantly spicy red sausage is slit down the middle and the incision is stuffed with cheese, and then the whole thing is wrapped in bacon and grilled. The cheesy bacon dog is folded into a flour tortilla and garnished with avocado slices. For Latin American junk-food aficionados, this is a major find.
And even though the trompo at Taqueria Monterrey stays in the fridge, the place offers other options. On my last visit, Guillen led me to the back of the dining room and pointed to the snapshots displayed on the wall. The photos showed rotating trompos set up in the backyards of people's homes. Evidently, there are lots of taco de trompo lovers in Houston who are jonesing for the real thing. If you want to serve tacos al trompo at a private party, call Rolando Guillen at the restaurant.