SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
What’s big, yellow, round (sort of) and powers the world?
The taco, of course.
This humble Mexican staple has become as American as the hamburger in the last decade, only tastier. And Durango has all but cornered the market on them, from soft and cylindrical to crunchy and messy to Navajo and novel.
So here’s the burning question – what makes the perfect, ultimate, memorable taco?
This can be a chancier query than you might imagine. My unofficial survey of more than 30 guests in five Durango restaurants revealed that divisions in the local population are hard and fast and almost insurmountable.
If you’re Mexican, and our community fortunately has its share, tacos consist of five ingredients and no more. The tortilla is always soft and corn; the filling is always slowly cooked meat (pork, beef and their sundry parts) and the condiments are always onions, cilantro and salsa. Maybe, if you’re feeling extravagant, a squeeze of lime.
“Carne asada, cilantro, lime, salsa, that’s it,” said Marco Zuniga, a paraglider pilot enjoying a meal at Emilio’s in the Main Mall. “That’s the perfect taco.”
If you’re American, the more things you can stuff in a single orb of flattened cornmeal, the better. Rice, beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, salsa and sour cream are just the basics – fish, chicken, pineapple and mango-flavored sauces often are preferred.
“Pico de gallo, avocado, rice is good, local cilantro, fresh veggies, mango, steak or pork,” said Steve Mace, a biologist waiting in line at Zia Taqueria during a busy Tuesday lunch hour, as he listed his favorites. “I go with everything,” he added, the tiniest bit sheepishly.
But beyond the inevitable disagreements about what to put into the perfect taco, an even greater rift remains – soft or crunchy?
If you’re over 40, you’re partial to the crisp half moons available in your childhood. If you’re younger, you’ll most likely choose the soft corn tortilla authentic to Mexican cooking. (You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fried taco shell in Mexico.)
“I like soft,” said Jesse Blake, a Fort Lewis College student getting ready to drive to North Carolina for a summer internship, as he waited for his order to come up at Nini’s Taqueria. His two fellow students and dining companions agreed.
“Crunchy, definitely,” said Cheryl Larkin, a very fit member of the over-40 crowd meeting up for a reunion of a women’s tennis group, also at Nini’s.
“Oh yeah, crispy,” her friend, Denie Dorminy, piped up.
Then there’s that Southwest specialty that defies convention (and understanding, for those unfamiliar with it) – the Navajo taco, made with fry bread. It looks like a pressed, plate-sized doughnut, fried to a mildly crisp golden brown and topped with a Paul Bunyanesque serving of pinto beans, ground beef, green or red chile, lettuce, cheese and a bit of tomato, if you like. It’s served at Kachina Kitchen, tucked in Centennial Center, an unassuming shopping center on the south side of town.
The day I visited, almost everyone in the restaurant had one of these behemoth concoctions before them, attesting to the fondness locals hold for the Native American creation. They know it’s not really a taco, but they love it anyway.
“I like the (fried bread)” said Lisa Mickey, lunching with her husband who works nearby. “That’s my favorite thing.”
Kachina Kitchen’s jovial owner, Fred Rector, smoothly demonstrated how he makes the puffy yet substantial bottom for his taco. He pulled out a tennis-ball sized round of pure white dough, patted it with flour between his palms and fed it several times through a machine resembling a pasta maker.
“The Navajo ladies do this by hand,” he confessed, “but I can’t.”
Then he used a pizza cutter to make a perfect circle and tossed the dough into a deep fryer. About 40 seconds later, the finished product emerged, hot and golden.
If there is dissent over which ingredients form the ultimate taco, there is none about the best time of day or season of the year to consume one. Any time, any day or night, any season. Tacos are warm and hearty comfort food for some, a light and easy snack for others. Some adore them at breakfast, bursting with fried eggs, cheese and salsa and others like them at dinner stuffed with traditional Mexican ingredients like tripe and beef cheek.
And everyone – really, everyone – enjoys them with a libation, almost exclusively a cold beer or a tangy margarita.
Which is why having a liquor license can mean success or failure at so many Mexican-themed restaurants. Owning a restaurant here is a tough business. Credit is tight, English can be new, getting a business permit is a trial. Many restaurants are open seven days a week.
It took three tries for Ada Garcia and Antonio Bogarin, owners of Tacos Nayarit, to obtain their liquor license. Some residents objected to a restaurant serving liquor so close to a school (Tacos Nayarit sits just across from Durango High School). But many customers supported the restaurant’s application and it recently went through.
“It has helped,” said Luis Garcia, who works with his sister at the restaurant. “The first thing they say is ‘I want a margarita or a beer.’ You say no, and they go somewhere else.”
Emilio’s owners, Jose and Leticia Peña, have their own tales of hardship. When they bought their restaurant three years ago, the kitchen didn’t have a refrigerator. They resorted to leasing a smaller space on the other side of the mall and turning it into Pepe’s, a take-out taco bar. And they too, just received their liquor license and plan to start serving dinner in addition to breakfast and lunch.
So it should be no surprise that the taco places that make it in Durango often have a loyal following. And well they should.
The pressure-cooked pinto beans at Kachina Kitchen are the best I’ve ever tasted, sourced just up the road at Dove Creek. The salsa at Emilio’s is to die for, the perfect mix of tomatoes and cilantro, heat and crunch. (The secret ingredient? Radish.) The vegetables and sauces at Nini’s Taqueria taste as if they zipped from the garden to your plate. The small corn tortilla and filling of grilled shrimp at Tacos Nayarit are as authentic a taste of Mexico as you’ll find here. And the old-fashioned crunchy taco shell fried on site at Zia Taqueria? The best.
But my over-40, decidedly American, vegetarian tastes hardly represent Durango diners at large.
So what do they say makes the perfect taco?
At Francisco’s Restaurante Y Cantina, solid American-style fare rules the day, with crunchy corn tacos filled with ground beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato, salsa on the side, tallying up as the customer favorite.
At Zia, diners load up on soft tacos filled with chicken, black beans, jack and cheddar cheese, lettuce and pico de gallo. (If you’re smart, you’ll add a dash of their smoky chipotle puree.)
At Nini’s, the most popular taco (soft blue corn) also combines chicken, cheese and lettuce, but its customers add a dash of sour cream and one of their nine mild, medium or hot freshly made salsas. (The day I was there, the hot mango habañero was the big seller.)
Tacos Nayarit diners prefer its soft, tasty corn tortilla filled with carne asada (seasoned, chopped skirt steak), cilantro, onions and lettuce, salsa on the side. (I must, however, speak on behalf of their seafood offerings, which were superb.)
Carne asada, cilantro, and onions in a soft, corn tortilla are also the choice of taco-eaters at Emilio’s, with the addition of white pinto beans, a staple in Leticia Peña’s home state of Jalisco. (If you have room, and you likely won’t, a side of the traditional Mexican rice is scrumptious.)
And at Kachina Kitchen it’s no mystery what customers come for – the quirky, filling Navajo taco. (Diners seemed particularly taken with the green chili sauce, consuming it with abandon.)
But for some taco aficionados, the perfect taco is more than a particular ingredient or tradition. It’s something ephemeral and earthy at the same time.
“A good taco is the love they put into it,” said Martin Castillo, kitchen manager at Zia. “The way you prepare it makes it the best taco.”
Note: To any fabulous taco restaurant that I missed, please forgive me. A girl can only eat so many tacos for a single assignment. Let me know. I’ll come next time. The quest for the perfect taco never ends.