It was very late at night in Mexico City, and we were blazing right through red lights and stop signs.
Our driver, who had been with us all week, had decided to join us on a mission: tacos. We were racing to find a puesto de tacos (tacos stand) still open.
Julio and I were exhausted, intoxicated, hungry — but our minds were alert. It’s a state in which many cooks leave their shifts after a huge evening. The hunger is the kind that hits you immediately when you breathe the fresh night air, and it can be overwhelming. I have heard theories that the smell of food tricks a cook’s body into thinking it is nourished, and the moment the cook exits the building, the hunger strikes. Tonight, it was a food-based performance for 90 that had tricked us and our bellies.
We were having no luck — we pulled up, saw hoses spraying down mats and cement, a whirl of the window, a failed negotiation and another whirl, and we were off. After a string of denials, a last resort in the form of a distant location was proposed, and we were off.
The night was dark, hot, and humid, the kind of warmth that strangely allows you to hear further and with greater resolution, but I was having difficulty focusing my eyes. I tasted savory-sweet-salty-stickiness in the corners of my mouth, my fingers and clothes perfumed with meat fat and sweat. Julio made fun of the moment earlier in the evening when I first attempted to slow down the entree pick-up, but no one understood my English.
We arrived to our far and final destination, and they were open. Through the steam and smoke, a white stand revealed itself under a couple of bright yellowish-white lights that flooded the area. Our driver was excited. He took the lead and ordered for us.
Being ordered for is an honor, and we were treated to it often on this particular trip. It guarantees excellent food and creates a real bond through trust, passion, and pride. In this host/guest relationship, there is no concept of eating preferences, issues, or allergies.
Tacos al pastor and beers were starting to come out, and we were eating them as fast as they arrived. The meat was a mix of crunchy and tender, with a background of sweet heat. The bright red al pastor oil was burning my mouth, so good we didn’t want to stop.
On that trip, Julio and I ate tacos al pastor every day, often in the form of gringas. It’s hard not to order them when you see the spit-grill up front, hot wood coals radiating, layers of seasoned pork caramelizing and simmering, juices running, with a cook freshly carving right into a warm tortilla.
Al pastor, meaning “Shepherd style,” is thought to have originated from spit-grilled meat brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, with pork having substituted for lamb. The giant gyros are called trompos (“spinning top”), like the toy, and are marinated with chilies and pineapple, which has an enzyme that makes the meat tender. Our favorite tacos al pastor is the gringa: toasted flour tortilla with melted cheese, al pastor carvings, onion, and cilantro. The toasted tortilla, its brown blisters resembling freckles on a white person, provide the name.
Between 1880 and 1960, Mexico experienced a steady, and sometimes large, stream of Lebanese, many escaping the Islamic Ottoman regime and World Wars I and II. Mexico was a place of tolerance and familiar ingredients. Many of the ingredients the Lebanese use had arrived with the Spanish 400 years prior, thanks to the massive impact of the Moors on Islamic Spain.
This hybrid cuisine is what makes Mexican food fantastic. Another example is Tacos Árabes: al pastor, but in place of a taco, pan arabe, a hybrid pita bread. Kibbeh was transformed using beef, deer, fish, or potatoes, instead of lamb, and its integration is considered a true naturalized Yucatecan dish, served with pico de gallo or x’nipek instead of yogurt or hummus.
As we were eating, Julio and I just noticed a biker with his helmet on, sleeping horizontally on his Enduro motorcycle straight ahead, against the nearby building. How had we not seen him earlier? Then we noticed another motorcyclist, also with his full-face helmet on, sitting there in silence. This one was looking directly at us. Had we walked right past him and not noticed?
“Are we going to get caught in a narco-turf war?”
“Don’t know, but these guys are like ninjas.”
Another motorcyclist showed up, killed the engine, put the bike on its kickstand, and just … sat there. We could get a better look at him: same full-face helmet, plus a red leather outfit — a motocross Mad Max.
I looked over and saw our driver had wandered back near our SUV. I looked across to Julio, and he motioned with a nod over my shoulder: yet another motorcyclist, right behind us. Full-face helmet again. I hadn’t even heard this one arrive.
We were surrounded. Surrounded by wolves. You could hear nothing but the distant compressor purring. My fight-or-flight brain started to cycle through half-remembered narco-cartel horror stories.
Julio gave me that look, it was time to go. As we started gathering ourselves, the motorcyclist in red got off his bike and walked toward us. I looked over toward our driver. He was already inside the SUV. I felt my right leg take a step back. My legs always give me away.
Red Max continued to approach. Jennifer will kill me and Julio if this turns bad.
The motorcyclist approached us. His helmet remained closed, and he remained silent. He reached forward with one arm and placed something in front of us. Then he returned to his bike, and the whole pack started their engines and took off.
It was a toy owl, wooden and colorful.
Postscript: It turns out that this motorcycle pack in Mexico City is known to move money and packages, no questions asked. Since this trip, we have been craving those al pastor tacos, and made our own trompo. Thank you, Norma Listman, for amazing pickles, salsas and for working la plancha, and Richard Tarlov for expertly working el trompo.