If you've ever driven north on Airline Drive on a Saturday morning to the produce markets at Canino's, you may have noticed a procession of colorful, handwritten signs along the side of the road. Those signs usually contain one word and an arrow pointing to a hastily constructed food stand or a van with its back doors propped open.
The word on those colorful signs is MENUDO.
There is, of course, something vaguely exotic and mysterious about these impromptu food vendors along Airline Drive. After all, "menudo" is not something you see on the menu at Pappasito's or any of the other "authentic" Tex-Mex restaurant chains in Houston.
So what is menudo and why all the mystery surrounding it?
For most non-Mexican Americans, menudo is vaguely associated with cow innards: stomach, intestines, other organs (note that I'm purposely and mercifully avoiding any references to Latin American boy bands). And for many Americans, organ meat ("offal") is indeed an exotic ingredient.
In fact, menudo is a traditional Mexican stew whose main ingredient is chopped up cow stomach.
A typical menudo recipe will include the broth, or pozole, made with hominy, chile pepper and other seasonings, and then the chopped up and cooked cow stomach itself. Specifically, menudo uses "honeycomb tripe," which is the stomach lining of the cow's second stomach (cows have four stomachs).
Recently, I was challenged to expand my Anglo-American taste buds to include this mysterious Mexican dish. But where to get it? Not at Pappasito's. And stopping by one of those impromptu food stalls on Airline seemed, well, too exotic.
Fortunately a prominent Houston food writer referred me to Houston's East End neighborhood and a reliable source for menudo. So for lunch one Thursday I trekked south on I-45 to Noemi's Tacos.
Menudo is traditionally served on weekends, and often for breakfast (the "breakfast of champions"), but you can get it at Noemi's whenever it's open (8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays).
Noemi's is a classic hole-in-the-wall Houston taco stand, spotlessly clean and family-run. I ordered up a bowl of menudo and a side of barbacoa tacos. Did I detect a brief sideways glance from the friendly Mexican-American woman who took my menudo order? Probably. I doubt there are many gringos more obvious than myself, and when they do come in they probably don't order menudo. I smiled. She shrugged.
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When the bowl of menudo arrived, it was wonderfully aromatic and colorful, filled with a generous pile of meaty tripe chunks. The flavor of the broth was reminiscent of tortilla soup, though less smoky. Bits of delicious and filling hominy floated throughout.
The tripe was surprisingly mild. Apparently the real skill in preparing menudo is to cook the tripe just to the point where it is tender and not too gamey, but still flavorful and pleasantly aromatic.
Though reasonably tender, the tripe chunks still had a rubbery, chewy, fatty, gristly texture that is foreign to the Anglo-American palate. Americans have been conditioned to respond to a certain "mouthfeel" for food that has undoubtedly been tested and perfected by fast food companies and big restaurant chains. I imagine that somewhere in a fast food company R&D lab, there is a manual with the assertion that "Americans don't like a rubbery, chewy, fatty, gristly mouthfeel."
Culinary cultural tendencies aside, menudo is a flavorful, hearty, filling stew that everyone should try at least once. Just make sure you get the good stuff at places like Noemi's Tacos.