So there have been a few really big articles floating around lately about who makes the best burrito in America. That determination will soon be made (go San Diego!) based on the impressive statistics compiled by Nate Silver & friends. Great minds put to great work, no doubt. And, of course, I’m 100% on board with this fine and valuable research.
But there’s another important inquiry to be made. Mostly un-scientific, but supremely practical for everyday guidance, this article will help you make the most critical of determinations: Is this taco shop legit?!!
Using some of my own grass-roots research, and assisted by the mexpertise of my good buddy Augie, I have come up with a list of essential factors to let you know that a Mexican food joint is legit.
- The name of the restaurant ends in “-berto.” As in, Rigoberto’s, Roberto’s, Humberto’s, Filiberto’s, Alberto’s, Gilberto’s… you get the picture. And while there are plenty of great Mexican food joints out there without a “-berto” in their name, if you do happen to find one sporting this most respected of name endings, there’s a good likelihood that it’s legit.
- Napkins. Loads of them. And we’re not talking about just any napkin, we’re talking about that ultra-thin, most worthless of napkin, whose useful life is completely exhausted 1/10th of the way through your first taco. That’s right, you’re gonna need 9 more of those babies just to make it to taco number two. So go ahead, grab a full 6-inch pile, you’ll use ‘em all.
- The kitchen is the size of your dorm room closet. It seems implausible that one or two cooks stationed in a 4’x’6’ furnace of a kitchen could survive (and thrive) under such inhospitable conditions, but that’s where the best Mexican food creations come from. In fact, there’s a scientifically proven inverse relationship between the size of the kitchen and the greatness of the food. Smaller the kitchen, the greater the food. It may sound a little counter-intuitive, but trust in science on this one. You won’t be disappointed.
- The coffee tastes like cinnamon. Now, you may never have thought to order coffee with your torta, but if your chosen establishment is legit, and you do decide to go that route, you’re not going to get some social consciousness-raising organic fair-trade rainforest alliance wunder-coffee. But it will taste like cinnamon. And you’re going to like it.
- ¡Goooooooooooooooool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! When you hear this unmistakably huge sound emanating from the microscopic kitchen, you know the place is legit. But you may have to wait just a tad longer for that al pastor.
- What lettuce? For those of you who are unaware, lettuce does not in a taco belong. With the exception of the gloriously deep-fried crispy taco-shelled “tacos dorado,” if you are served a taco that has lettuce, you are not at a legitimate Mexican food establishment. Immediately hop back in your SUV and continue searching, because legitimate Mexican food joints do not put lettuce on tacos.
- Tinfoil. That’s right, tinfoil. Tinfoil rules the roost at the most legitimate of Mexican food joints for packaging all sorts of sundries. It’ll swaddle your burrito, provide a roof for your ceviche, and protect your tacos from any outside threats. Basically, it’s the duct tape of the Mexican food world, and no Mexican joint worth its salsa would be caught without it.
- And… Styrofoam. Combine the magic of tinfoil with some Styrofoam, or more preferably, a ton of Styrofoam, and you’ve just entered packaging paraíso.
- Pickled carrots and jalapenos. These are essential. And inexplicably, they are the only items not securely fortressed in Styrofoam and tinfoil.
- The drinks! You won’t find these drinks in any other establishments north of the border. I have my suspicions that the FDA may play a part in this somehow. Either way, we’re talking fresh-fruit aguas frescas, sugar-bomb preserved-to-the-apocalypse Jarritos, Cokes in bottles hecho en Mexico, and of course, the venerable horchata, a treat muy auténtico. If you don’t see at least some of this stuff in the shop fridge or big plexiglas vats, you have inadvertently wandered into a Taco Bueno. Which is no bueno. Get out, fast.
- Lengua, buche, cabeza, tripas… what is all this craziness???!!! It’s exactly what you’re thinking – tacos made out of a bunch of weird critter parts that most gringos and a solid portion of the Mexican population couldn’t imagine ingesting. That said, these items are a hallmark of the most legit Mexican joints out there, so somebody’s filling their gullets with this stuff. And it must be good, because despite their numbers, there are not enough hipster foodies in the world to sustain these menu items if they weren’t actually tasty. So even if you choose not to order the beef brain tacos, be happy it’s up there on the menu, because it’s a sure-fire sign that the restaurant is mucho legit.
Finding all of these things in one place doesn’t necessarily guarantee the pinnacle of Mexican cuisine – but it does mean that you’re on the right track, and odds are, you’re going to fare pretty well at this most legitimate of Mexican food establishments. Now go feast!
© 2014 Jim Buche