Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Best Tacos Ever

I don’t like using superlatives, simply because I myself don’t like being told what to do. When somebody says that something is “the best”- According to whom? You? Who died and made you the expert? Anyway, it annoys me, so I try not to do it. I prefer to say things like, “it’s my favorite cava” or “it’s the best pizza I have tried in Manila”. Things like that. But for me to dub something as “the best, period”, I don’t think I would be able to live with myself. I have a very low tolerance for arrogance, even if it is me.

But I will have to break my own rules with this one. This one I loved so much that I was thinking about it constantly for days. Even while I was eating it, I was already wondering how I could possibly deal with the mediocrity that is everything else after that. That is how amazing this dish was.

After a long day at the Kennedy Space Center, we (Me, Matt and Carlos) were famished and ready for a good meal. Carlos- his silver bimmer equipped with its powerful engine and some speeding-ticket-evading gadget- was zooming through the freeway toward, what he claimed, were the best tacos we would ever try. After our arepas experience, I knew that I could trust him on this one. I happily napped as the dimming Florida landscape whizzed by, knowing that when I awaken I would be having some delicious grub.

We arrived 45 minutes later at Tacos Del Rio- the same spot where we had our arepas a couple of weeks before. It was a small joint, seating 15 at the most. We placed our orders at the counter, which Carlos expertly did in rapid Spanish. As usual, I just told him I would have whatever he was having.

We ordered some Mexican beers called Modelo Especial- a premium pilsner made by the same company which produces Corona. Nice and crisp, perfectly-balanced, this beer was just too drinkable. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but this is one pilsner I can literally drink all day. Just give me two coconut trees, a hammock in between, and I’m set.

When our food arrived, we headed towards the gleaming salsa station to top our tacos with whatever condiments we wanted. On the left side were the mild salsas- including some guacamole, refried beans and sour cream- while on the right side were the hot salsas in different shades of green and red. In between were an assortment of fresh vegetables and herbs- diced onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, the works. After some instructions from Carlos, we dove in.

I had a combination of three tacos topped with various meats- lengua (ox tongue), beef and pastor. All the meats are sliced and marinated the night before, and then quickly cooked on the griddle before being served. All except for the pastor- or spit-roasted porkloin- which is roasted in the morning on a shawarma-like contraption, and then cut into strips upon being ordered. These are put on top of soft corn tortilla, made in-house, everyday. All the salsas are also made fresh, everyday, and you could tell. I topped my tacos with some guacamole, sour cream, cilantro, and some of the spicy salsa verde.

On first bite, all of my preconceived ideas about Mexican food just flew out the window. The flavors and textures were so different from what I have been used to. First of all, there is no dominant spice- there was no pungent cumin or chili powder that jumps out. It was a perfectly-balanced medley of fresh herbs, taut and crisp vegetables, and the smokiness from the meats. The tortilla is a unique character on its own- its texture is something that I have never experience before. The freshly-ground corn imparts a fine graininess that adds bite to what is otherwise deemed merely as a wrapper.

And let’s talk about the heat. Mexican chilies seem to hit you a different way. It does not come at you up front- it attacks later on, almost predatorily, when you least expect it. Matt was an unlucky victim of this, thinking that he was up to the challenge being quite the hot sauce lover. He piled on the spicy salsa with the menacing orange tinge, since his first bite was bearable. Little did he know that the heat slowly creeps up at you, and not in your mouth, where you expect it to hit. You start feeling this searing heat coming from your neck, climbing up all the way to the top of your head. What you get is the uncontrollable urge to dunk your head into a tub of ice.

After Matt got some relief from washing his face in the bathroom with cold water, Carlos recommended that we try their dessert- a tequila-flavored flan. That, too, was delicious- the tequila added a flavor dimension that was not overbearing- just a subtle zing that you get in the end with alcohol. It was so good I ordered it again the second time we ate there, but alas, they were out of it.

I love it when food surprises me. This just goes to show that it pays to have an open mind when it comes to food, and to avoid pigeon-holing foods and flavors. Have I stuck to my profile of Mexican food (heavy on the cumin and cilantro), then I would not have appreciated the fresh and bright flavors of authentic tacos.

As we finish off our beers, I look at Carlos (Matt is still shell-shocked from the salsa and is, therefore, unintelligible) with concern, brows furrowed, and ask,” How do we come back from this?” He lets out a hearty laugh then stops, looks at me sympathetically, and says, “You don’t.”

Tacos Del Rio
9785C Orange Blossom Trail
Orlando, FL
Tel. no. (407)601 1542