A taco by any other name

After hours of driving, then unpacking and settling in, I didn’t feel like going to the grocery store.  I ate a late lunch on the road, so I thought snacks and wine would suffice instead of dinner.  I was woefully wrong.  I was hungry, and starting to get a little grouchy because of it.  I glanced at the restaurant list my host provided and remembered something she said about tacos.  Thanks to the small bit of wine, I wrote a poem:

Oh, tacos. I love them so.
But, from Texas to Oklahoma, how will this go?
If I saw someone eating, I’d be so jelly.
I need a taco to get in my belly!

You’re welcome.

Maggie and I walked to a highly-recommended taco place which happened to be only 3 blocks from my apartment.  Everyone I’d met during my short time in Oklahoma City was enthusiastic about the tacos there, and some websites extolled it as serving the best tacos in Oklahoma!  I started to get excited.  At this point I must confess: I get very excited about food.  Whether I’m cooking it, buying it, reading a recipe or even perusing a menu, an intriguing combination of ingredients makes my mouth starts to water without any other sensory triggers.  If I see fresh ingredients that can be molded into greatness, or enjoyed simply and without adornment, I want to reach out and claim them for my taste buds.  It’s not just food like tacos and queso that catch my fancy (but, oh my goodness, tacos and queso), it’s a broad range of foods: fresh blood oranges from an open market, a perfectly poached egg, and a can of pumpkin that I incorporate into a recipe to enrich the flavor.  I even enjoy (in theory) the dandelion greens that I’ve tried unsuccessfully to make edible because they spark my imagination.  But, there is undoubtedly a special place in my heart and tummy for tacos.

From the moment I arrived at the taco shop, my adventure became a comedy of errors.  First, and many dog-owners who bring their pups to bars will get me on this – I’d brought Magnolia to the taco place because there were tons of tables outside, but when I arrived I learned that all ordering was done inside.  I am generally hesitant to tie her up and leave her because (1) she is adorable and might be stolen, (2) she might panic, and (3) if she gets loose, there is a busy street nearby.  I’m also a good dog mom, and do not assume that my dog is allowed anywhere I can go.  So, I was in the throes of a classic dilemma: what the hell do I do with my dog while I go inside the restaurant?  One of the employees offered to watch Maggie while I quickly went in and ordered, but in less than a minute brought her into the restaurant because noises were scaring Maggie and making her freak out.  A dog in a restaurant??  Great.  I picked her up immediately and offered to leave.  I knew it was rude for Maggie to be in there.  But, they let me go ahead and order.

I asked for a small queso, green chili pork taco, and fried avocado taco.  I opted for flour tortillas because I wasn’t eating them immediately.  Corn tortillas can create a superior flavor profile, but any taco aficionado would know that sogginess can be an issue for carry out.  They generously gave me a free drink and a salsa sampler because it was my first time to eat there.  All I wanted was a tall glass of ice-cold water.  It really hit the spot.  We went outside to wait.

After the food was delivered in brown paper bags, I prepared for our departure, and temporarily put the food down on the bench.  A slightly stronger wind arose and the decorative awning squeaked in the breeze.  This was it.  This was what scared the begeezes out of Magnolia while I was inside.  Then the second snafu of the evening occurred: Maggie jerked the leash, the food bags hit the pavement, and the contents spread in a 3-foot radius from the point of impact.  The chips were laying loose on the ground so they were dead to me, but I saved the tacos as well as the salsa and queso.  I put them back in the bags, but knew that without chips, they would not be as glorious.

We walked the three small blocks back to our apartment.  Maggie was still wired, and the paper bags were weakened by pervasive grease.  Two feet from the front door of my apartment building one of the bags broke and the salsa and queso were on the ground, yet again.  I sighed, put down my water in order to pick them up, and told Maggie not to drink it.  Almost instantly her muzzle was in my cup and she was enjoying my deliciously crisp, cold beverage.  Dammit.

I couldn’t help but laugh.  First, the dog in a restaurant; second, spilled chips; third, loss of cold drink.  When nothing goes right, but all that’s at stake is a hungry gal’s dignity (and even that is barely threatened), that’s all one can do.

We finally made our way into the apartment, and I set about trying the tacos.  ….my heart broke a little.  They were just ok!  Not outstanding.  They didn’t blow my mind or inspire my dreams.  This may seem dramatic or that I have unrealistic expectations, but I have reveled in the mixture of flavors and textures from a bite of food such that there were fireworks in my brain’s sensory receptors.  I have marveled at a symphony of ingredients, and I want my mind to be blown by an aria of tastes!  I expect to dream about the glory of the food!  And I know that tacos can deliver.

What I don’t know is why the Oklahoma tacos were substandard.  The recipe was similar, they certainly didn’t remove flavor by trying to make it healthy, and yet, the tacos in Texas were far superior.  How very sad!  How did they become so highly recommended?  Do Oklahomans not know a good taco when they taste one??  That thought was even more sad.  As I looked at my chipless queso and salsas, practically impotent without their dipping buddies, I wondered with a small sense of panic if I was in a land of bad tacos.

Now, in fairness, I chose extravagant varieties of taco, which would not likely be found in a real Mexican restaurant.  However, my basis of comparison for this exercise was not true Mexican food, but rather Tex-Mex.  So perhaps the question is inherently flawed because of a shaky foundation.  But when comparing apples to apples, or in this case, the green chili pork taco and fried avocado taco from Texas to the same tacos in Oklahoma, I was left with a disappointing taste in my mouth.  Literally.

Instead of inspiring a scavenger hunt through Oklahoma City to find a superior taco, this experience drove me to avoid Mexican food altogether.  Not within the sanctity of my own kitchen, of course – I made tacos from scratch to fulfill my cravings.  My public avoidance of Mexican food persisted until the last weekend of my visit to OKC, when I went to find out what in the world Choctaw tacos could be.  No, I don’t mean Choco Tacos.  I mean Indian Choctaw tacos.

I was intrigued.  My curiosity overcame my wariness, and I drove to the Choctaw Tribal Alliance for their monthly Indian Taco Sale and Indie Market.  The market was underwhelming, but had a vendor with some beautiful bead work.  However, let’s not kid ourselves: I was there for the food.  The tacos turned out to be traditional taco toppings (ground beef, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and cheese) over frybread made with a secret recipe.

I am not privy to the secret recipe used for my Indian tacos.  However, Google helped me find a non-secret version of the recipe.

Indian Fry Bread

2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk

Mix flour, salt, and baking powder together.  Add milk or water and stir to make a stiff dough.  Turn into well-floured board and pat down to ½ inch think. Cut into squares with a slit down the middle.  Make any size you want, but for Indian Tacos, get a ball and roll it out to about 7 or 8 inches.

This recipe is from the Choctaw Nation website, and other online recipes vary the amount of baking soda or use water instead of milk.  Several commentators indicate that they make the frybread by feel rather than by recipe.  However, it is admittedly helpful that some recipes specify frying the dough in 400-degree oil or lard until golden brown.

Interestingly, my Indian taco was much better than the fancy tacos I tried on my first night in OKC.  The meat and beans were not spicy, but were well-seasoned and had a simple, fulfilling flavor.  The frybread was thick but puffy and the combination satisfied both my love for bread product and my obvious admiration for tacos.  I was altogether pleased by the experience, and enjoyed that Oklahoma was redeemed in its taco-dom by natives of the state.

But wait, the Choctaw tacos weren’t really “tacos” per say, but rather an amalgamation of Native American and Hispanic influences.  Looking back, I admit that I may have responded snobbishly to the falsely lauded tacos in my neighborhood.  Just because I didn’t enjoy that particular taco shop didn’t mean that it was without merit to many people.  After all, a taco by any other name really is just a taco.  I’d been unwilling to be a martyr to the cause to find out if good tacos existed in OKC because I wasn’t prepared to face culinary disappointment.  However, if people enjoyed those tacos, who am I to judge?  Now that I’d found a monthly taco fix with a Choctaw twist, I was temporarily sated.  Next time in OKC, I will overcome my reticence and try another taco shop.  I always hope it will be amazing and delicious.

– Your huckleberry

P. S. – Apart from the taco issues, I had 3 favorite restaurants in OKC: Picasso on Paseo, Kitchen 324, and Cheever’s Café.  Honorable mention goes to The Pump, which has a fantastic patio, but not great food.

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