I was born amid Mexican food. Maybe that sounds weird.
Irish and Italian on one side of the family, Russian and Ukranian on the other. Maybe that makes the Mexican food thing sound weirder.
I get that.
But it was the dominant not-made-at-home food of my childhood. We ate it a lot. It’s something I seek out in every city I live in. (The worst I’ve ever had: this joint in Philadelphia which was cruel enough to compensate with absurdly good mango margaritas. Yet I swear they made refried beans from a powder. Go figure.)
Not long after I hit the ground here in Pittsburgh, I heard about Reyna’s in the Strip District. Tortilleria in back, taco stand out front on Penn Ave. I chose a gently raining day to stop by. Forgivable, but not my only mistake.
The special when I go by is a crab empanada for $3. I adore empanadas. They’re almost like little calzones, though not the big-as-your-fat-eighth-grader variety: a shell of fried dough filled with almost anything. Beef and potatoes, say, or raisins and lamb. Almost any kind of leftovers could wind up making a truly inspirational empanada. The dough is important, too. It should be crisp and firm. Mush is nobody’s friend.
So I should have seen the microwave. I noticed the electric griddles for heating up whatever people ordered to put in their tacos and was a little nervous already. Those things don’t normally get hot enough to brown meat.
I order the empanada. Dude pops a premade one in the microwave. Oy. How old was it already? Hours? Weeks? And with crab in it, that’s a whole ‘nother problem.
Then, yeah. Mush. Hot mush.
I see the sign that says house-made tortillas. Tacos can’t be a bad idea. I’m a little on edge because of the empanada. And the tacos are $2.50 each. For taco-stand tacos, this is a little high. Most places, $1.25 or $1.50 is a good ballpark.
What I order then is almost like a test. One of my favorite things in a taco is lengua. Beef tongue. Done right, it’s rich, meltingly soft and like nine kinds of incredible.
Lengua has a very strong beef flavor which isn’t for everyone. It’s become kind of a staple of mine, in part because I like it and in part because it’s a good way to get a measure of a place. Get lengua right and lots of other things are bound to be right — or wrong in all the best ways. That’s fine, too.
Dude takes some precut little cubes of lengua and tosses them on the grill. They look a little gray, but nothing I can’t handle.
“You want everything on it?” Dude asks me.
“Cilantro y cebolla,” I said. Chopped cilantro and raw onions.
“Traditional Mexican,” Dude says. “I like that.”
He hits the tacos with a little fresh lime juice and we’re good to go.
It’s started to rain a little more, so I hunch under an awning next to the taco cart to eat. The corn tortillas are good. They taste fresh and complement the rest of the taco well. And the lengua: a little chewy but nothing to worry about. Flavorful. Solid. Not spectacular.
Still: better than I expected. But I don’t have to move nearby or anything.