I have a taco conundrum.
Okay, perhaps taco is the wrong modifier. The conundrum, after all, extends to many meals containing not-small amounts of meat from unidentifiable origins, be they ethical or otherwise: soup dumplings, beef rending, Speed’s hot dogs, banh mi, pho, cubanos… All of these foods, when prepared correctly, are shockingly gratifying. I would be a poor food writer if I were to dismiss these from my list of favorite foods simply on the basis of their questionable pedigree.
On most days, I keep a pantry filled with very little meat and a pretty strict selection of vegetables, fruit, and grains, all of which are sourced as locally as possible. (Northeastern winters make this task particularly difficult.) Since I spend my days eating for a living with little choice involved, I like to spend my hard earned money on “virtuous” food in an attempt to counteract everything else I end up putting in my body during the day. Not only that, but I strive to be a conscious meat eater by purchasing the most humanely raised animals I can afford. This usually works.
Until the taco craving hits. To get a truly good taco, you need to head to a hole in the wall, almost clean restaurant on the far side of town, and order with gusto. Spare no strange cut a change: go for the lengua, the tripa, or the cabeza, and leave your conscience as close to the door as possible.
One of the few things Anthony Bourdain has said that I find in any way valuable is that when trying new foods, you’ve got to forget as many preconceived notions as possible. Much of the time, this means forgetting that the pork in your taco may not have come from the farm 15 miles down the road. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with this fact; for a long time I relegated myself to the few vegetarian dishes on the menu at the new Cantonese restaurant, or forwent my precious cabeza for sautéed mushrooms. This move was good for my conscience, but not for my curiosity. I value sustainable food choices, but I also love trying new and increasingly weirder dishes.
Of course, in an ideal world the taco conundrum wouldn’t exist: we’d all eat happy pigs, cows, chickens, and the like (and not too many). Short of this scenario, what is the best course of action? I like to think that stocking my kitchen wisely and occasionally splurging on amazing food sourced from god-knows where is a decent compromise. Of course, another option is to learn how to make a good taco at home.
First bring in my boyfriend, the taco expert. He’ll break down a pork shoulder and cut it into bite-sized bits. He’ll put these into a Dutch oven and cover with water. He lets them simmer until the water evaporates, the pork is tender, and he has a slick of pork fat on the bottom of the pot. He’ll add some lime juice and then fry the pork bits in their own fat until caramelized, crisp, and almost (but not quite) burnt. Put these bits in a good corn tortilla or two, top with minced red onion, lots of cilantro, and another squirt of lime. Eat in your dingiest chair with extra napkins.