Taquerias – where vegetarians fear to tread
Middlefield Road in Redwood city, somewhere between 5th Avenue and Douglas street is a little Mexican island. Unlike neighboring Palo Alto and Menlo Park, here there are no cute million dollar homes. Instead, the street is barren of trees and populated by run down yet colorful stores, taquerias, roach coaches and body shops. There is never a lot of crowd on the street and on hot summer afternoons, the emptiness against the stark background is noticeable. When you do see people, you see teenage mothers pushing babies in carts, dilapidated older women in bling, and groups of men standing around in grimy T-shirts, chatting and visually undressing all women walking by.
What brings me here? Yes, the tacos. A plate of tacos is a small meal – it costs practically nothing and can slide in between your normal meals with perfect ease. The salsas excite your tongue, the fresh corn tortillas arrive charred and soft and, the meats here don’t stop at perfectly done carnitas and pastor. You can get tongue, head cheeese, brain, cheek, and tripe too.
We have done quick taco stops in Little Mexico many times. Last time was La Casita Chilanga, a tiny 3 table taqueria popular for its tortas. If it weren’t for the latin music wafting though the windows of the neighboring salon, we would have missed this place entirely. The server had chopped the meat expertly while his eyes were glued to Pink Floyd on a tiny 12 inch TV.
This time it was Tacos Los Gemelos, a bright green and yellow colored shop next to a laundromat. You can either get your order at the counter facing the sidewalk or walk in. The laundromat was threatening to drown all the yummy smells of seared meat, so we decided to walk in. Inside was surprisingly spacious, at least compared to La Casita Chilanga.
Tacos is small amount of food but it is no fast food. The meat is chopped up at the last moment and grilled to retain maximum juicyness. The tortillas are grilled side by side to avoid the tortilla from becoming cardboard like. While we waited, we were soothed by the co-mingled noises of eggs frying, cars going by, cell phones ringing, and laundromat humming. A fat lady from the neighborhood was picking up meal for a feast and chatting away with the young boy manager who in turn was texting with friends and taking orders from other customers all at the same time. A couple of men walked in with oil stained t-shirts, clearly from one of the several body shops, and ordered 4 times as many tacos as we did. A $1 a taco, anything is affordable. The popular drink among the clientele turned out to be Red Bull. But you can indeed get your fill of coconut water, tamarind soda or traditional horchata.
The food arrived on non-eco friendly disposable plates, accompanied with a large jalapeño on the side and quarters of lime. As we dug in, we were reminded of a recent trip we had made to Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market hoping to find tastier tacos. Perhaps we were expecting bigger flavors of annatto seeds or a larger variety of peppers there. Gemelos was significantly better – fresher and more flavorful. Can tacos be made any better than what Los Gemelos serves? I am sure they can but I am also sure that I would have to be sitting at one of Rick Bayless’ restaurants. And maybe seeking fancier tacos is like seeking gourmet brioche burgers with truffled Kobe beef. Can it be done? Yes. Should it be done? Perhaps not.