Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's all revelative...

On Saturday, a revelation.  After what felt like an endless quest for decent Mexican food in the East Bay.  After going out of our way (i.e. out from under the rock that is Alameda) late on a Thursday afternoon just for the chance to find something even vaguely familiar (from the Latin familiaris “of the household”).  Just trying to find something, anything that reminded her of home.  Having dead-ended here at Fruitvale's Cinco de Mayo festival:
[Pupusas, griddle fried corn patties filled with cheese, and curtido, the Salvadoran oregano-scented take on saur kraut]

[Argentine arepas, griddled pre-cooked corn cakes speckled with whole corn]

[Tamales de pollo from Tamales Doña Tere on Fruitvale Ave., steamed corn masa filled with chicken and wrapped in corn husks]

To think of all the time we wasted thinking the answer was somewhere out there, anywhere but here.  And then Saturday, a revelation.  Incredible homestyle Mexican right under our fucking noses, not two blocks from where we currently reside.  Here, in Alameda, the epicenter of over-Americanized ethnic foodspots, we discovered Mexican food that wasn't just some watered down, over-salted version of the real thing (I'm lookin' at you La Penca Azul).

We came to El Caballo Wraps to "try" the "street tacos", honestly thinking that this was going to be just another throw away meal that would again leave the bitter aftertaste of raw, unfiltered disappointment in our mouths.  What we got, instead, were the most picture perfect tacos callejeros (which didn't even make it into the photo reel because we scarfed them down so fast).  One de lengua, my go-to taco filling, and another de carne asada, Isaura's go-to and a great barometer for Mexican restaurants.  (If the carne asada is grey or looks it's been anything other than charred or crisped on the flattop - i.e. stewed or boiled, get the hell out outta dodge, son).  The lengua was fatty, crispy and beefy as all get-out, again exactly as it should always be, but isn't.  The asada was noticably grilled, as the term asada suggests, but the fact of the matter is that not every place comes through on this promise, which made this carne standout. But even at this stunning start, we longed to leave.  It was a Saturday night and we wanted to be out, to feel the hum of the city beneath our feet.  But it was cold and rainy anyway, so we decided to stay.  After regaling Oscar, the owner, with tales of our quest for comida casera, of our relief to have found something so sacred, he smiled widely, placing a hand to his heart, offering the most humble gracias.

He then offered us two free samples.  The first this gorgeous, glowing ember-colored tortilla soup.

And this super-fresh tomatillo-chile verde hybrid that I've never even seen before, topped with real crema Mexicana (like sour cream, only better), and queso cotija, a crumbly sheep's milk cheese, also known as feta's drier, saltier cousin.

Minds were officially blown, however, when the entrees arrived.

Rice and beans are also good barometers for Mexican restaurants as they are a mainstay, and both appeared in the grilled chicken burrito.  Both tasted like time.  Like someone had taken the time to brown the rice before adding house-made chicken stock (can't confirm that yet but sure as hell tasted like it).  Like someone had taken the time to caramelize the onions before cooking the beans slowly, over the course of the day.

Finally, the torta to end all tortas.  This one?  De asada.  Chipotle aioli, tomato, avocado, on Mexican telera.  'Nuff said.

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