Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tacos Salceados, Tijuana: The Taco Center of the Universe

Sometime in the spring of 2008 I had made my first visit to Tacos Salceados in the La Mesa neighborhood in Tijuana. I can't count how many times I've been there, nor how many friends I've led down to what I refer to as the taco center of the universe. An early post on my blog documented a trip with a friend during the summer of 2008 released some of the first Baja gems I had been keeping under wraps.

Since the CAT was out of the bag, I've been trickling these places out over the last couple of years, but realized that I hadn't dedicated a specific post to just Tacos Salceados.

Tacos Salceados is simply referred to as La Ermita, named after the street where it's located. When a place is so revered and adored by the local diners, it needs no name. Certainly there are other taquerias and stands on Av. Ermita, but most any Tijuanan can only think of the one. Like the hippest club in LA that has no sign, but only a curious velvet rope with a lone black suited guy donning an earpiece, La Ermita is that place everyone wants to get in to, but there are no fashion or hipster credentials necessary. This is a place for all, and the only hurdle is finding a table, because this place is usually packed.

Salceados translates to sauciers. The taqueria is the creation of former saucier Javier Campos Gutierrez.

After having devoured tacos from all over Mexico, and made these many return visits to La Ermita, the significance of the place finally struck me. It's a traditional taqueria that combines the northern meat intensive taco conventions, the southern stewed taco customs, the skills of a line kitchen, street taquero speed and chops, with an originality that elevates these tacos to street art. There are the fancy tacos in upscale Mexican restaurants, and many cookbooks that will show you how to make designer tacos with pesto or mango salsas. Salceados is no such place. They make street tacos without pretense.

Immediately upon taking a seat at the bar, or at one of the tables, even the casual observor can judge that this is no ordinary taqueria. The pickled vegetables, called escabeche, contain julienned carrots, aromatic herbs, and are full-bodied from the addition of locally produced olive oil. No canned jalapenos which "may contain some carrots", nor the usual escabeches. Quality and signature condiments are evidence of greatness in street food.

The house amuse bouche are cucumbers topped with one of the house made cremas.

The salsa bar is a whole other level of adornment. Many salsas are thickened with egg whites and feature an array of flavors:tamarind, almond, hibiscus,or strawberry. They use the standard chiles, habanero,chile de arbol,jalapeno, guajillo, but also use chile pasilla,chilaca,and chilepin to dleve into more complex spice profiles. They have 50 or more of these salsas and cremas, but only keep around 10 or so out at a time. I remember two years ago I counted around 38 of them at the salsa bar. It is a challenge walking over to that cache. Don't be afraid to ask for a recommendation to go with your various tacos.

The tacos have an attractive presentation. On the line, two women crank out made-to-order corn and flour tortillas(each taco can come with either of your choice). Meats are grilled, placed atop the tortilla, and then steamed using an aluminum mixing bowl covering the taco on the grill, the taqueros squirt water from a bottle under the bowl, then let them steam for a moment. Marcos, who seems to be the manager of the operation, does just about everthing, but I fondly remember him deftly plating the tacos on the line back in the early days with the grace and form of a Tai Chi master. He would cooly slice perfect avocados thin and fan them out across the taco, then add finishing salsas and cremas.

The cactus taco(above), has asada, cactus, and melted cheese. The steam gives the taco wetness, with the tender, and savory steak. All components melt into a mouth orgy of flavor.

The chiles gueros at Tacos Salceados are the best I've ever had. Instead of pico de gallo salt and lime, the chiles are covered with salt and pepper, and are wading in a shallow broth of soy sauce and lime juice.

The lengua taco has single slice of lovely beef tongue, that gets an assist from cheese, tasty corn tortilla, and a tomatillo salsa.

The marlin has bright red flesh. This version isn't very far from the typical street marlin taco, but with an added lushness from the signature cremas.

Tacos Salceados favors sauce over the usual onion, lime and cilantro. In Mexico City, the tacos filled with stews, called tacos de guisado, have no need for such condimentation, and at times require no salsa.

This is the best of both worlds. Tacos are about wetness.Traditional Northern tacos meld tender meats, a squeeze of lime , salsa, cilantro, and onions with heat to create this melt in your mouth affect. That's why tacos should be eaten immediately after delivery from a taqueros hand. Here this is achieved through moisture from the layered salsas and cremas.

The taco made with local shrimp and scallops is sublime.

But, if you get only one taco at Salceados, don't know who would DO such a thing, it would have to be the quesataco. This was Javier's creation, and it has caught on all over Tijuana. Monterrey jack cheese is fried on the grill and the proteins are tucked into the cheese bed, where it is formed into what resembles a cheese tamal. I ordered this one with NY steak and shrimp. They are poplar by themselves, or you can have them on a tortilla.The quesataco translates to cheese taco.

It is arguably one of the best tacos you will ever have, a flavor an texture blend that will excite your pleasure centers and set the hairs on your back to stand up. Everyone who tries the questaco for the first time always looks at me and just goes, "ummmmmmmmmmm!" for a while, smiling, shaking their heads and nodding.

The fresa taco, or taco dulce(sweet) is another feat worthy of your attention. Savory meats or seafood in a mango puree are wrapped in the quesataco. Purees of strawberry, cherry, and chopped pecans are spread on the taco adding a sweetness that clashes with the toothsome protein, then crumbles in to a heap of perfection in your mouth.

The tacos are not going to be had for a dollar, more like around a couple bucks each. It's a little more for a flour tortilla, as they pack more taco. But, you will find yourself in a comfortable place after two of these, and three tacos will take you out for the evening.

Despite Tacos Salceados being the only taqueria of its kind in the world, it always looks and feels like a huble neighborhood taqueria. The patrons are just middle class Tijuanans looking for a great taco. You see everything from teenage gothic kids, to old men in cowboy hats, students, to large groups of family and friends grabbing a bite after checking out the latest flick at the Cinepolis(local movie theater chain).

Get a seat up at the bar and watch the show. The taqueros are like some of the best I've seen in Mexico, and have adapted their street smarts to the line kitchen. There's still alot of style and play in their delivery.

It seems that tacos are a form of religion and a way of life to many on both sides of the border. If this is the case, then those of us who've been should start hearing confession. "Have you been to tacos La Ermita?"

Some of these photos were taken by my friend Tomoko, who had recently gone with me to Baja for the first time. After all these years of taking friends, I realized I had only a few pictures. Thanks Tomo! They're the best pictures on my blog. Uh....I think you can tell which ones are hers.

Tacos Salceados
Avenida Ermita Norte 30
La Mesa
Tijuana, B.C., Mexico

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Balblair Highland Single Malt Scotch: '91 and '97 Vintages Arrive in the US

On May 13th I was invited to the Edison by Balblair Single Malt Scotch to sample their new 1991 and 1997 vintage releases.

Balblair is one of the oldest distilleries in the Highland region of Scotland dating back to 1790.

The evening was festive at the Edison and with a couple of spokesman from Balblair introducing the vintage bottles and offering their time and expertise to us attendees eager to know about this interesting venture.

Balblair is doing in-house, what independent bottlers do, taking an exceptional distillate from a great year, and bottling it with care. Regular batches of scotch go into blends or are put down to rest and released by their age, like an 18 year old scotch.

Balblair is hand picking special malts at their distillery to release by vintage, and the '91 and '97 are the first to enter the US market.

Both vintages are aged in American oak and have sensuous fruity aromas and flavors. The 97 a harmonious blend of fruit that intensifies in the smoother 91, which has a more complex spice character. The Balblair scotch was a hit with the crowd of whiskey hounds including Eat, Drink, and Be, Merry, EstarLA, and Gourmet Pigs.

Balblair is a house with a tradition of excellence and is offering these hand crafted single malt scotches for the first time in the US.

Thanks to John Eccleston for the invitation, and you can read more about Balblair at their website.As for myself, I will be sitting on the balcony tonight enjoying the Balblair 91 with a fine cigar.

LA Wine Fest 2010

This weekend, June 5th and 6th, The LA Wines Fest takes place at Raleigh Studios. At the festival you will find more than 130 wineries, spirits and thirst-quenching craft beers, great food, and over 30 lifestyle vendors, this is a weekend you will not want to miss! Sample over 500 different wines from at least 14 different countries. Meet and greet with LA’s top Master Sommeliers, wine educators, winery owners and vendors, and enjoy food from LA’s top restaurants.

The LA Wine Fest will be supporting the Hollywood-Wilshire YMCA and International Children's Tumor Foundations via raffle tickets sold at the event. This is definitely Cause for toasting.

The event also features some interesting seminars including sake, bourbon, wine and cheese,and scotch.

See you there. More details can be found at the festival's website.

LA Wine Fest 2010

Saturday, June 5 and Sunday, June 6 , 2010 from 2-7 pm
Raleigh Studios
5300 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038-5111

Tacos Guanajuato,Boyle Heights, CA-Count Tacula and Mt. Tacocatepetl

With the blessings of the priest at the Lady of Talpa School in Boyle Heights, and throngs of hungry locals, Tacos Guanajuato has bequeathed unto Los Angeles, Vampiros(vampires). The Talpa shrine in Mexico, where one of the famous virgin Marys resides, is a a place where pilgrims go to receive miracles, well, if you're driving through Boyle Heights and hankering for something affordable and delicious, these guys certainly have the cure. The stand is located just outside the gate of the Lady of Talpa school, technically on the property, but no vampires are allowed inside the gate!

These tacos have been engineered by taqueros in labs to maximize sensorial delight.They are a construct of all that is good.

The menu has tacos and tortas, as well as the vampiros and volcanes(volcanoes). Vampiros and volcanes are the same thing, just depends on your STATE of mind. In Guanajuato, where this stand's taquero Pepe is from, they are called volcanes. In the state of Sinaloa they are referred to as vampiros.

The typical meats for vampiros, or volcanes, are asada and al pastor. Pepe has a well manicured trompo loaded with al pastor and the reassurance of pineapple atop the device. This is a sign! Pepe takes care to prepare on quality grilled, roasted, and steamed proteins. There's also tripa dorada(tripe cooked until dry and crunchy),and steamed cabeza(beef head).

Jose Luis is a true taquero ands takes his work seriously. He has the kind of pleasant, gentlemanly demeanour that is as traditional as his tacos. Yes, he's here to earn a living, but mostly he's here to make great tacos.

Ulises, handles the money and keeps a well-stocked condiment table. Cucumbers, radishes,limes, and three salsas, the pico de gallo is the right call for the vampiros/volcanes.

The tacos here are solid, I loved the rib and the tongue. Pepe peeled the tongue casing off right before my very eyes, "yes I'll have the steamed tongue." The rib has a nice oily sheen that adds to the enjoyment of this taco.

But the vampiro is to die for, and the volcan, explosive. It is called the volcano in Guanajuato because of its construction:a grill top dried corn tortilla, topped with melted cheese, carne asada or al pastor, and a mound of pico de gallo make it a dead ringer for an active volcano. Sinaloans call it the vamiro because, well, no one seems to know. If you ask most Sinaloans the origin of the vampiro, you'll get an "I don't know", but they all know what it is. I asked a friend from Tijuana while we were working in Mazatlan one night,"Where do these vampiros come from?" "Romania", he answered, with a straight face."Thanks for nothing, cabron."

I had to dig a little on this one, there was some stuff on the internet on english language blogs, but nothing in spanish and none of my Sinaloan friends here in LA and in Sinaloa had an answer. The accepted explanation on a few blogs is that it gets its name because the charred, crispy taco resembles a bat wing? Could be true, but a citation is needed. Two other hypotheses I've come up with is that the tortilla is wrinkled like Dracula's cape, and the fact that the vampiros only come out at night. Woo-oo-ah-AH! Or, mabe some costumed vampire showed up one night and asked for a tostada with cheese and asada, and with no deep fryer on hand, the taquero dried out the tortilla on the grill. "What do we call them?" "Vampiros, guey" (Vampires, fool.)

In any case, you can enjoy these in Sinaloa, and the Sinaloan stands in Tijuana, and right here outside the Lady of Talpa school in Boyle Heights. I will continue to ponder the question:"Do vampires really exist?"

Just for fun I ordered a vampiro with asada and a volcan with al pastor, Pepe just smiled. By know he's used to it.Oh, and Pepe doesn't know why its called a vampiro either. Many of his patrons haven't even heard of either of these tacos. But, it's an easy sell.

What sets this volcan, or vampiro apart from all the others I've had though is the way Pepe prepares the cheese. Instead of melting it on the tortilla, he grills the cheese directly, making a burnt cheese crepe out of one side of the cheese. He sticks this, "chicharron of cheese" side up, and melted cheese adheres to the tortilla on the bottom. Crunchy tortilla, with two textures of cheese, savory meats, and a cooling pico de gallo? This IS the taco miracle of Boyle Heights.

Tacos Guanajuato,Vampiros and Volcanes.
Located in front of the Lady of Talpa School
Savannah St., just south of 4th in Boyle Heights.
Every day except Tuesday from 6PM-11PM, later Fridays and Saturdays

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tamal de Jacuané: Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas

An offering to the Mayan god god of rain,Chaahk, known as Tlaloc among the Aztec Empire, the Tamal de Jacuane, is a delicacy from the state of Chiapas,in Mexico.

The tamal is wrapped in corn husks, and is neatly tied at both ends. I purchased this from La Pichanchas restaurant at the airport in Tuxtla Guttierrez, Chiapas a few months ago. A fortuitous encounter with an airport stand selling the restaurants food products, and a little regional taste for the road.

The corn masa is stuffed with black beans and dried shrimp, an exotic combination. I suspect that Chaahk has particular tastes and needs something special in order to "make it rain."

But, the big surprise here is the hoja de hierbasanta wrapped around the tamal before it is enclosed into the corn husk. It gives the tamal a greenish color, but also deliciously flavors the tamal. The hierbasanta is like a Mexican grape leaf, a wrapper that adds a dominant character to the food. The hierbasanta is a tender woody-stemmed perennial, the Piper Auritum, in Latin.

The tamal de Jacuane is one of the many tamales that are unique to Chiapas.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Los Cangrejos, Tijuana,BC: Make a Pit Stop at the Urban Crab Taco King

While Sonoran seafood restaurants in Tijuana aren't as common as the Sinaloan or Nayaritan varieties, I've learned to make it a required stop whenever I do come across one. Sonoran seafood is only underrated by those who haven't tried it.

Where the shrimp is king in the states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, crab reigns supreme in Sonora.

Los Cangrejos has been open for a little over a year, owned by Sonoran born Marlon Moreno. His family has a Baja lobster restaurant in the well frequented tourist destination, Puerto Nuevo, but as he began to pitch me a visit, I told him thanks but no thanks, and I was just fine right where I am. The crab is local catch from Puerto Nuevo.

The restaurant carries five different dungeness crab tacos, plus octopus with olives, marlin, shrimp, and fish tacos. All seafood tacos are cooked.

The restaurant is a typical urban playesque set up, a large kitchen and parking lot with a small tented area for dining.

This is a great place to pass your lunch hour. It gets a nice breeze which adds to the beachy feel. A good way to begin is by ordering a soul warming shrimp consommé.

A favorite moment of mine at a taqueria is when the condiments arrive. I start plotting my salsa matching, do I go with the squeeze bottle, the house salsas, or the Huichol? Lately, I'm finding that good things come in squeeze bottles. The crema and a light chipotle sauce come in the bottles, which allow you to neatly finish your taco.

The aguachile is very good here and comes in a shallow clay pot. The shrimp is sweet, and the heat is mild. I added some blackened chile de arbol salsa. Mini tostadas come with your aguachile accessories, they are crunchy and have a fine toastiness.

Los Cangrejos serves up such Tijuana favorites as the camaron enchilado(chilied shrimp) and the smoked marlin taco. These are both solid, as this taqueria does a fine job on all its dishes.

But you are here for the crab tacos. The especial is sauteed crab with vegetables, a beautiful balance of butter and sweetness. It's the taco to order if you really want to taste this fresh and flawless dungeness crab in its purest form.

The chipotle crab taco is pure extacy, just the right amount of chipotle to tinge the color, scent, and impart subtle flavors.

Whoever had the big idea of stuffing the shrimp with crab, and wrapping it in bacon deserves a big hug. The snap of the greasy,juicy pork hit your palate first, but the lighter flavor of toothsome seafood.

There aren't many restaurants with crab tacos in Tijuana, which makes Los Cangrejos all the more interesting.

Tijuana's creative taquerias and stands never cease to amaze in their variety and quality. Los Cangrejos is a place that you could easily mistake for a million other mariscos stands serving up the same menu, with matter-of-fact execution. And, they could just live off the virtue of their lone wolf status....but this is Tijuana.

Los Cangrejos
Bl. Diaz Ordaz at Zapopan.
Tijuana, BC
mornings and afternoons.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tacos Aaron, Tijuana- Urban High Cuisine in Tijuana's Colonia Soler

Tacos varios(various tacos) are what they call tacos de guisado in Baja California. These tacos are most prevalent in Mexico City, but each state in Mexico has these types. They are simply put, stews in a taco. They can range from such non-traditional fillings like creamed spinach or potato salad to more traditional chicken in peanut sauce or chicharrones in green sauce.

A layer of rice is sometimes laid out to bind the wet taco together, and makes for quite a filling treat. In Tijuana there are the traditional stews, but also more northern influenced stews that reflect an emphasis on meat.

Tacos varios, or tacos de guisadorepresents Mexican home cooking at the taco stand. It's your mom throwing some of that left over machaca with eggs in a tortilla as you run off to school. At the many stands, and stalls in Mexico, these stews are cooked in the early morning and then brought to hungry customers still with sleep in their eyes. Many places open anywhere from 5am to 8am and wrap things up in the early afternoon. Once at the stand the taqueros(tacoers) ladle their tacos from fancy street chaffing trays or from traditional clay pots.

The crew at Tacos Aaron, located in Tijuana's colonia Soler, have been serving up the definitive version of Tijuana style tacos varios for close to 20 years. Colonia Soler is known as a shopping center, with its large Calimex supermarket and a Smart and Final. There is always a crowd and plenty of great places to eat in between errands.

They are one of the rare food trucks in Mexico, the only ones I've encountered have been in northern Mexico. They advertise their tacos as alta cocina urbana, urban high cuisine.

Many places with this style of taco have pretty big menus. On any given day, Tacos Aaron will have between 15 and 20 different stews to choose from. The specialty of a tacos varios taquero is COOKING, so, don't fret over the large selection, it's OK. This is genuine street gourmet food. Step up to the counter and order your first 2-3 tacos.

The set-up at Tacos Aaron has the built in chaffing trays, which are replenished during the day by runners bringing the fresh stews from the home kitchen. On one visit I was told they were out of machaca, but it would be arriving in about 15 minutes.

A good bet is the beef birria taco. This is the Tijuana style of birria, the version at Tacos Aaron isn't the best in the city but pretty damn good.

The dorado de villa can come with any filling. It's a hard fried taco, and one of three tortilla options, the other two being flour and corn. All are hand made.

The milanesa taco is outstanding, a perfectly seasoned and tender milanesa with a charred salsa roja, avocado, and crisp lettuce. While iceberg lettuce isn't exactly the most exiting vegetable, it inexplicably adds a touch of luxuriousness, not to mention a nice crunch to these tacos.

A classic stew, chicharrones(pork skin) in green sauce is made with fine, meaty chicharron. The taco is rolled into a conical shape to trap all that tangy goodness.

Thepollo adobado, another Tijuana specialty, will make you believe in chicken tacos.

The chorizo taco comes with a luscious spanish chorizo, bursting with singed pork and paprika. Lettuce, avocado, and the house salsa complete this amazing combination. Tacos varios aften come with a sauce, or a salsa comes with your taco, so use your disgression when adding condiments. You don't want to put a salsa that will clash or take away from the already perfect taco.

Eggs and machaca? Please. These come with a tomatillo sauce, you haven't lived until you've had an egg and machaca taco.

It is breakfast time after all, so the only thing better than eggs and machaca might be eggs and nopales(cactus). This is the one that goes the fastest, so get there early. The onions and cilantro at Tacos Aaron are rough cut and market fresh. This taco is the essence of tacos varios, no need for additional flavors.

While the birria didn't blow my mind, the quesabirria, beef birria with cheese is a revelation. I ordered this at first because I've learned to order anything that begins with quesa(cheese). Soupy beef birria with a melted cheese with the house salsa, it's a match made in heaven.

You will find tacos varios all over town, but the drive to colonia Soler for some tacos at Tacos Aaron is well worth the effort. These are 100% Tijuanan street tacos that you will sadly miss if you're trapped in the tourist zone. Tacos varios, or tacos de guisado are a journey all taco aficionados must make at least once in their life, yes, it's like going to Mecca for us.

Tacos Aaron
colonia Soler, alonside the Calimax.
7 days a week
mornings until the food runs out
I recommend between 8am and 10am for the best stews

Bizarre Foods Baja Countdown! 6/14

Well, just fresh from an appearance on Top Chef Masters, I'm now ready to dedicate all energies to the upcoming Bizarre Foods Baja episode on June 14th, where I will be an onscreen guide in a street food segment.

In the weeks leading up to the show I shall be taking you to Mexico, focusing on Baja, of course. I will be cranking out some new posts, and will try to catch up on all the fantastic eats I've been meaning to share over the past year or so.

This is going to be a deeply personal show for me, as I worked hard over many years leading up to this episode, promoting one of my favorite regions in Mexico, Baja. Well, I guess you really couldn't call most of it "work", but there were some intense moments and struggles on the road to Bizarre Foods Baja. Stay tuned.....

Saturday, May 15, 2010

LA Vendy Awards 2010, Today!!

India Jones, Big Mista, Nina's Food,Grilled Cheese Truck, Hot Dog Kings, and Tacos El Galuzo all in one place. Who's hungry? Come and taste and be your own judge. WHO has the best street food in LA?

And, I will be one of the judges for this event, be sure to drop by and say hello. Let's EAT!!

Get tickets for the 2010 Vendy Awards LA.

Saturday, May 15th, 2010 from 4 to 7pm at MacArthur Park, specifically S. Park View Street between W. 7th and Wilshire Blvd

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Top Chef Masters Season 2, Episode 6:My Appearance on "Scary Surf and Turf"

Part 3/5

Part 4/5

In case you missed me last night on Top Chef Masters, here we are again. Kelly Choi, Gael Greene, James Oseland, Jay Rayburn,Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods,Eddie Lin of Deep End Dining, Weird food Fest founder Marc Moss, and I throw the chefs a wicked curveball in "Scary Surf and Turf". Watch and see what happens....

Tijuana's 8th Annual Sushi Fest, this Sunday, May 16

This Sunday, May 16th, the 8th Annual Sushi Festival at the Centro Comercial Pueblo Amigo in Tijuana's Zona Rio. The event, put on by CANIRAC, Tijuana's restaurant association, runs from 12pm-6pm. The event is free and open to the public.

I attended the event last year, and have been closely watching the increase in the presence of Japanese cuisine in northern Mexico. At current, there are around 45 Japanese restaurants in Tijuana, and the greatest center of Japanese restaurants and people is in nearby Mexicali.

This event is organized with support from Tijuana's Japanese Association, presided by Horatio Korakura.

Tijuana Beer will be on hand to keep everyone cool and happy, in addition to the Baja style Japanese food.

That means sushi rolls. And, Mexicans are very fond of sushi rolls with avocado and Philadelphia cream cheese. No, these aren't traditional Japanese, but a style of Japanese cuisine developed in Baja. Don't be afraid to put some Tapatio sauce on your Tijuana roll.

Last year the sukiyaki line was very popular, so much so that I didn't get to sample it.

Teriyaki is also a local favorite. When it comes to Japanese food , Mexicans prefer thee simpler tastes of these well known eats.

There will be dancing,exhibitions of Karate and kimonos, a Bonzai tree lesson, local restaurants and beverages, and a chance to experience the Baja-Japanese tradition.

Admission is FREE

8th Annual Sushi Fest
Sunday, May 16
Centro Comercial Pueblo Amigo
011-52-664-682-8744 for info.