To properly honor Gustavo Arellano’s visit to Albuquerque and his new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, there was really only one option: an upscale tequila bar that serves gringo tacos, chips and salsa, and leafy salads.
I mean, what better way to pay tribute to Señor ¡Ask a Mexican! himself than getting buzzed on organic mescal in a place named after the Arellano family's home state, Zacatecas?
Truth be told, I was originally gunning for the colitas de pavo at Chicharronería Orozco, on Isleta in the South Valley. I wanted to stare down a big pile of fatty turkey shards with a stack of fresh tortillas and all the fixings, meditating on the taco's myriad forms. A turkey taco, for heaven's sake. Have you ever heard of such a thing? But alas, like any legit Mexican restaurant, it was closed on Good Friday. So, less than two months into business, Zacatecas got the call. (Not literally, of course. I snuck in as usual).
The contrast between Orozco and Zacatecas—neither of which I would call a taquería—pulled me in opposite directions. I’m fascinated, if not infatuated, with the South Valley. I’m so blinded by all that culture and history, I give the area’s mystery meats and trans fatty acids and sinus-clogging dairy a pass, even though that’s exactly stuff I normally avoid. So while my heart and mouth want to hang in the barrio, my mind and belly are decidedly uptown.
Zacatecas is the new baby of Mark Kiffin, whose Santa Fe restaurant The Compound is renowned for its ingredients and artistry. In 2005, Kiffin won a James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southwest. Given that bio, I didn't expect the fish tacos to suck. And they did not.
The Pacific rock cod was perfectly browned on the outside, juicy on the inside, and oozing with glorious fish grease. Just an awesome piece of fish. It would not be out of the question to find a similarly seasoned chunk of cod in some coastal Baja shack (but eight times larger and at a quarter of the price, of course). With the addition of coleslaw and habanero salsa, this was not the taco of anyone’s abuelita.
The Pacific rock cod was perfectly browned on the outside, juicy on the inside, and oozing with glorious fish grease. This was not the taco of anyone’s abuelita.
Another worthy taco was the cochinita de pibil—pork slow-cooked in banana leaves with chiles, then topped with tomatillo-chipotle salsa and queso fresco. Say what you will about trying too hard, this taco was way more satisfying than the lard-laced shreds of mystery meat that sometimes pose as barbacoa in this town, even in the South Valley.
Tortillas were the one component where Zacatecas fell short, at least when compared to hole-in-the-floor neighborhood greaseries. It’s not that Zacatecas’ tortillas were bad, they just didn’t make me purr—not like a supple tortilla so fresh I’d happily wolf one down without anything on top. And they could have been warmer.
Arellano would probably consider both ends of the taco spectrum, from greasy to gimmicky, as equally authentic versions of Mexican food. And he’d cite both as evidence of the advance of Cal-Mex food. Like the burrito, he claims the taco for Cal-Mex cuisine, though he considers all Mexican food equally authentic, from Taco Bell to the eight moles of Oaxaca.
To talk about tacos is to talk about salsa. And, as I learned in Arellano’s book, it’s overtaken ketchup as America’s No. 1 condiment. At Zacatecas, two artisan salsas rocked my basket of housemade chips. The avocado, tomatillo and cilantro salsa was foamy, refreshing and smooth. The other, a fire-roasted guajillo salsa, showed off the tomato’s sweet, savory and smoky moods. (Adding a bowl of fresh, chunky guacamole raises the chips from $3 to $8.)
If I had a patron saint, and that saint had a favorite drink, then that drink would surely be mescal. The first time I tried it, in Boston, I ate the worm and ended up backstage at an Aaron Neville concert, shaking his hand. Since then, it’s only gotten better.
A general term for booze made from agave cactus, mescal is typically made when the plant, or maguay, reaches about seven years of age. Tequila, a type of mescal, is made from the blue agave, which takes longer to mature than most other agaves. Many mescals are made from smoked agave.
I got a three-mescal sampler, which came in terra cotta dishes that were bigger than thimbles and shaped like the caps on hurricane fence posts. I couldn’t really tell the difference between the three of them. By that point, I was drunk on fish tacos.