When it comes to tacos, Jacob Richler suggests that you keep it real.
If you believe in the supremacy of some new fusion pork-belly-and-kimchee taco that’s all the rage at your trendy, local, Brooklynesque taco stand, forget about it. Clear your mind, close your eyes, and come with me. We are now in the Gulf Coast fishing village of Holbox. It is only mid-morning, but the temperature is already in the high twenties. Passing ATVs are kicking up dust from the unpaved streets, and the stray dogs are on the move, looking for shade. More important, in the tiny village market, Julio is at his post, doling out the finest, purest expression of Mexican taco you can find – cochinita pibil.
Why are Julio’s tacos so much better than yours or mine? Mostly it comes down to his beautifully seasoned slow-cooked pork, so supple and soft and moist. And the way he skims achiote-dyed fat from the braising liquid in his pan and drizzles it so thoughtfully over each little clump of meat. Maybe it’s the bright tang of the marinated onions he scatters overtop, the bite of his chilli-laced salsa, or the creamy complement of sliced hard-boiled egg he sometimes adds to the mix. The fluffy, soft tortillas he builds them with don’t hurt. Nor does his unique packaging, of one-and-a-half tortillas per package – doubling up at the centre to support meat and juices (because a single one would leak or burst, and two would be too thick and heavy). His tacos are full but delicate: two bites and you’re done. And he charges but 12 pesos – about 85 cents – for a pair.
We respectfully call him Don Julio.
Mexicans like the Don are often confounded by that fact that the holiday of Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates an obscure victory in the long-ago Franco-Mexican War, is such a big deal stateside when it means so little back home. For my part, I prefer to stay out of this controversy, and instead, stay focussed today on the big picture: tacos. Cochinita pibil is the thing to eat today. And the best recipe I have ever tried for them – and the only recipe I now use – is this one from Rick Bayless. One note: do try and track down the Mexican sour oranges for the marinade, instead of the suggested substitute of regular orange mixed with lime.
The real thing makes a world of difference.