I'm turning onto Morganford, and I'm getting nervous. This happens every time I head south toward Primo Taquería or at least every time I do so alone. The problem, you see, is that yo no hablo español. In fact, what you just read represents about 75 percent of the muy broken español that yo do hablo.
So as I drive, I rehearse what I'm going to say. A basic "Hola, ¿Cómo estás?" exchange to start. Then I panic, because I'm not sure if the word bueno, which is all I've got should the girl at the register return the favor, is a grammatically acceptable rejoinder. Once I get through the pleasantries, I'll have to rely on the list of taco and torta fillings penned on the dry-erase board behind the counter. This roster never gets amended, even when the kitchen's out of, say, salchicha for the day. So should I happen to order an eighty-sixed item, I'm basically screwed, reduced to a halting series of "¿Sí?" and "¿No?" questions and a spasm of moronic menu-pointing as I try to negotiate a substitute. ¡Dios mio!
Still ruing the fact that I couldn't line up a Spanish-fluent friend for this visit, I park in the pothole-riddled lot and walk past the taquería's sister business, a bodega whose storefront windows are taped over with large sheets of black plastic tarp. (Is every bodega housed in a dark, windowless structure?) Primo Taquería, which is only a few months old, inhabits a space last occupied by a gym; telltale floor-to-ceiling mirrors still line both sides of the interior. As I enter, male heads turn away from the futból game airing on the house TV set to take in the pasty gringa stepping into their terrain. It's the clichéd needle scratching on the jukebox come to life. I've never seen a female customer at Primo. For that matter, I can't recall seeing anybody besides me actually sit down to eat at Primo. It's just Mexican guys hanging out, sipping Corona longnecks or pouring from quart-size bottles of Carta Blanca or Tecate.
I make it a habit to order myself a quart of beer at Primo Taquería. When else does someone like me get to chill with a quart of beer and catch a Spanish-language soap while waiting for food to arrive? In fact, how many chances are there in life to step outside yourself like that?
The food at Primo Taquería tacos, tortas (sandwiches dressed with avocado, lettuce and tomato), quesadillas with or without meat, burritos, plus weekends-only specials like menudo (tripe and hominy soup) and whole fried fish shatters all my restaurant-reviewer constructs. In fact, there's nothing restauranty about it. There are no courses at Primo Taquería, no table service to speak of, no special ordering, no "The-crystallized-ginger-in-our-green-papaya-salad-would-pair-nicely-with-your-main-course" posturing. Primo's food is what it is.
I order on the fly, without thinking too much: two tortas asadas (with grilled steak), two tacos de pollo (with chicken), two tacos al pastor (with roast pork), and one apiece of the tacos de salchicha (sausage), chorizo (spicy sausage), de tripa (tripe) and lengua (tongue). And, um, a couple of quesadillas.
It doesn't matter what I get; there are no degrees of deliciousness here, no variables at play in the kitchen. There is only real-deal Mexican food, seemingly not made but birthed, brought forth as a perfect, ideal whole, as if this particular measure of ground maize knew, as it was being boiled and milled and pounded by hand into a pair of soft tortillas (always two of them wrapped around the filling, never just one), that completeness would only come when a ladleful of meat and healthy doses of chopped cilantro and white onion were put upon it.
But still, I review. I note how the roast pork in my al pastor taco is plated not as a cut of meat but as countless little shavings of it, allowing each one a surface-area coating of spices. I taste how a torta's cushiony, enriched-flour bun (from the French bugne, meaning "swelling" lo siento, there goes my critic's cap again) is just so slightly crisped on the outside, and remind myself that this is how they make torta buns in the pocket-size tortilla factories along Cherokee Street, a little more fried-on-the-outside than an American hamburger or hot dog bun. I gobble slices of a quesadilla and think that the peculiarly sweet cheese within tastes like some sort of queso blanco/queso fundido hybrid.
On a Saturday, when I decide on the pescado, I don't care what kind of fish it is. Even if I did, the girl taking my order wouldn't know. At a taquería, the fish of the day is fish. It arrives with everything but the hook intact. I pick off big flakes of juicy and crisp belly meat with my fork, pick the bones from between my teeth, then flip it by the gills to eat the other side.
Even when I eat a sit-down meal at Primo Taquería, I order more food to go, because I know people who downright live for this stuff. If I bring tacos home to my boyfriend, even if it's really late and he's drifting off on the couch, he'll slap himself awake to eat a few. I bring a torta to my friend Devin, a grill man at a bar and grill, who's never been to Primo. I wait for a lull in tickets, then hand him the torta wrapped in foil and listen to him make cooing noises as he devours the thing. Very few people connect with food the way Devin does, so much so that merely watching him eat is a sight to behold. Devin will really, really like Primo.
Yes, I know I'm acting like some silly Pied Piper, waxing poetic on buck-fifty snack food. I'm out of my element, rhapsodizing about Mexican food as if I discovered it. (I did arch an eyebrow when a plate of tacos I ordered one night arrived with a dollop of sour cream atop each; was somebody trying to tell me something?) And here and there, yes, Primo has its little faults, like one taco asada whose steak tasted too much of gristly pot roast. I realize it's unseemly to go on about Third World street food as if nothing you can learn in culinary school has any merit. I'm okay with all of that.
Because this food is special.
Muy, muy special.