The Perfect Taco

Ahh, the perfect taco. Filled with rich, mouth-watering meat and flavorful salsa, fixins that spill down your face… Napkin? Bah, who needs it! The perfect taco winks at you from across the table and and taunts you. It’s says, Let’s get messy.

I don’t know what kind of freak doesn’t like a taco, but I’m not sure I’d like to meet him or her.

Tacos are so easy to love because you can personalize them and heap that tortilla full of whatever you like. That’s why homemade tacos are great for a crowd. Recently, we decided to throw a taco party to celebrate my dear friend Scotty’s birthday. I created the picture below for the invitation, taking special care to prominently feature the birthday boy’s face, and to establish an appropriate theme: “Viva el Scotty!”

I sent him the picture in an email one weekday afternoon and asked him what he thought. I was expecting to be showered with accolades for my creativity.

His response? “Don’t you ever work?”

No time to be disappointed, it was time to plan the menu. First, the meats had to be chosen: 1) Pork Carnitas with Fresh Orange and Tequila, 2) Ground Beef with Chipotle, and 3) New Mexico Red Chile Chicken.

Then, a couple of fresh, homemade salsas would be necessary: 1) Traditional Salsa Fresca, and 2) Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa.

And of course, corn and flour tortillas and the fixins: shredded lettuce, farmers market tomatoes, and sour cream. A pot of black beans studded with Mexican chorizo sausage on the side couldn’t hurt.

Any taco party of mine is going to feature two of my very favorite tried-and-true recipes, which (in my opinion) are necessary to make a perfect taco: Pork Carnitas and Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa. Both of these recipes are adapted from The Best American Recipes 2004-2005, and I’ve been making them for years.

What are Carnitas?

From the Epicurious food dictionary: Carnitas  pronounced “kahr-NEE-tahz” is Mexican for “little meats,” this dish is simply small bits or shreds of well browned pork. It’s made from an inexpensive cut of pork that’s simmered in a small amount of water until tender, then finished by cooking the pieces in pork fat until nicely browned all over.

Pork cooked in pork fat? What could possibly go wrong? This recipe is great and it serves a crowd, but it can be easily pared down to feed just a few folks.

Pork Carnitas with Fresh Orange and Tequila

4 lbs pork (boneless country ribs, chops, bone-in chops, or just about whatever is on sale – use your best judgement)

2 cups water, plus more as needed

grated zest of 1 orange plus peeled outer zest of another

juice of 4 oranges (about 1 – 1 1/2 cups)

6 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tsp sea salt

2 tsp black pepper

1/2 cup tequila

Cut the pork into large chunks. Cut off any large chunks of fat and reserve; leave any small pieces of fat on the pork. Combine the pork, reserved fat, 2 cups of water, orange juice, grated and peeled zest, garlic cloves, and salt & pepper in a deep 12-inch skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until pork is tender, about 1 3/4 hours, adding more water as necessary, to keep the meat partially submerged.

Uncover the skillet and boil until the liquid is reduced by 1/2, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tequila and boil, stirring often until all the liquid evaporates and the meat begins to brown and gets crisp, about 15 minutes. This is when the pork starts to get the classic “carnitas” appearance; those chunks of pork fat have rendered and they are now crisping up the meat. Let cool slightly. Discard any loose pieces of fat, and if you used bone-in pork, remove the bones. Tear the meat into strips.

When you are ready to serve, return the meat to the skillet, along with a couple tablespoons of water, over medium-low heat, and rewarm, stirring. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.


The recipe is also kick-ass made with blood oranges when they’re available. Pork carnitas pair wonderfully with Avocado-tomatillo salsa. Tomatillos look like unripe tomatoes, but they are not; they’re a whole other beast. They’re related to the gooseberry and likewise come in papery husks. In my experience, they’re pretty easy to find in most supermarkets. They have a tangy, fresh flavor.

Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa

Serves a crowd

4 ripe avocados, peeled and chopped

1 dozen tomatillos, husked and chopped

1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped

1 onion, chopped

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Juice of 1 lime

Sea salt to taste

Mix all ingredients, being careful not to crush up the avocado too much – you want a salsa texture rather than a guacamole. Lightly press plastic wrap over the surface of the salsa so the avocado won’t turn brown. Refrigerate until it’s time to serve. Stir again before serving and taste for seasoning. Add more sea salt, lime, and/or cilantro as desired.


My perfect homemade taco requires the following: A warm tortilla (corn preferred, but flour is pictured here), pork carnitas, a squeeze of lime, Colby-jack or manchego cheese, avocado-tomatillo salsa, fresh tomato, and crunchy iceberg lettuce. Mmmm, give me a minute.

I can’t very well write about a quest for the perfect taco without mentioning one of my very favorite restaurants in Washington, DC:

Oyamel Cochina Mexicana

401 7th St NW, 20004


The concept of Oyamel is Mexico City-style street food, transformed to elegant small plates (called “antojitos” – think Mexican tapas). With celebrity chef José Andrés at the helm, creative touches and attention to detail absolutely abound. Andrés is an esteemed cookbook author who has his own PBS series, Made in Spain. He has also been featured several times on Bravo TV’s Top Chef as a guest judge. With Andrés’ magic at work, the taco is heightened to something artful and fancy, like the below fish taco, “Pescado Mexicano” ($4.00) starring a perfect rectangle of seared white fish, adorned with a rich cilantro pesto. Look how cute:

Speaking of cute and fancy, have a look at my dining companion, Rochelle, whom I recently had the pleasure of introducing to Oyamel. Isn’t she the cutest? Don’t you just want to pick her up and take her home?

Now, the menu at Oyamel offers a lot of variety, but it can be a bit daunting for the first-time diner. If you find yourself scratching your head, I suggest choosing a few tacos for your first visit. You can hardly go wrong, with a multitude of filling choices from stewed chicken to pork carnitas to local goat. More adventurous palates will be delighted to find taco fillings like pork belly, beef tongue, and even sautéed grasshoppers (“chapulines,” a specialty from Oaxaca, Mexico).  Another plus for the budget-minded chow-hound: Three tacos and an iced tea will have you walking out of there for about $15.00, with a full belly and a smile on your face.

If you’re dining midday, you might also opt for the $20.00 lunch special, which includes two antojitos and one taco. It’s a great introduction to a fantastic restaurant. A few things to keep in mind: orders come straight out from the kitchen as they are ready, so your food is hot and fresh, but the downside is that your tacos might arrive a few minutes prior to your dining companion’s. Also, your chips and salsa won’t arrive until after you place your order, and service can sometimes be a little slow and/or scattered, so be patient – it’s worth it.

On subsequent visits (because I wager that you will be back), you’ll delight in sampling the array of antijitos, super-fresh ceviches, ensaladas (salads), and mariscos (seafoods). As a starter, may I highly recommend the “papas al mole,” (pictured) a basket of french fries covered in mole poblano (a complex, mildly spicy sauce flavored with chile, almonds, and chololate), Mexican crema, and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. It’s a delight!

¡Viva México!


Hard Knox

What we’re exploring: Downtown Knoxville

What we found:

  • A cool, old hotel
  • Surprisingly good Mexican food
  • Affordable, personalized artwork

So I recently went on a last-minute business trip that had me in Knoxville, Tennessee for less than 24 hours, staying right off of Market Square in the quaint Hotel St. Oliver, one of those old boutique hotels full of antiques and history. The lady at the front desk, miniature pinscher named “Bruiser” in a pink sweater at her side, told me that my room had once been selected by A&E to film a recreation of a murder scene. (I swear to God I’m not making this up.)

ME (brightly): “Was there actually a murder in the room?”

LADY (Looking at me funny): “No, of course not!”

BRUISER (cocks head): Woof!

Yeah, let’s face it. They’re not used to my kind in Knoxville.

If you’re adventuresome like me, you’ll find that even in a seemingly prosaic burg like Knoxville there’s all kinds of fun lurking beneath the surface. For instance, did you know that Knoxville has it’s own girls’ Roller Derby term, the Hard Knox Rollergirls? Sadly, they weren’t rolling the night I was there. I wish I could meet them. I mean really, what kind of a life would culminate with a career on the girls’ roller derby team in Knoxville, Tennessee? It just leaves me with so many questions. Like, do they have day jobs? Where do they get their hair done? Do you think they’d show me their tattoos, or would they hit me if I asked?

For me, the culinary high point of my brief trip would have to be the Mexican sports bar Soccer Taco (9 Market Square, An unexpected gem, this place had all the usual Mexican restaurant fare, but the surprise was the “Real Mexican Team” menu, a selection of street food straight out of Mexico City that included hard-to-find huaraches, which they describe as “huge hand-made oval tortilla,” as well as tacos made from beef cheek, tripe, or lengua (cow tongue). Imagine my delight. I went with the slightly more pedestrian chorizo and chipotle steak tacos. My side order of charro beans were deliciously studded with hot dog slices and massive chunks of tender, fatty pork, the whole fiasco coated in a slick layer of orange animal fat. (You may want to proceed directly to the Heart Hospital at Knoxville’s Parkwest Medical Center.) The smoky, orange hot sauce was served in a bowl on the side and it had my eyes watering and my sinuses opening. Yes, I was moaning and completely incoherent by the end of it all. Thankfully, I was dining alone so no one had to see me like that. It was heaven right there in East Tennessee. Who knew?

While hanging out in Market Square, I also checked out the neat home store Abode (15 Market Square,, where I was turned on to a really cool artist, Rachel Travis, who does diminutive pet portraits on wooden boxes for about 50 bucks – not bad for a piece of personalized original artwork. Cool stuff! (

My ride to and from the airport afforded great views of the Sunshpere, an impressive structure erected for the 1982 World’s Fair. Remember the Simpsons episode “Bart on the Road” (1996) where Bart and the boys rent and car and go the World’s Fair 10+ years too late only to find that the Sunsphere has been converted to a wig shop, the Wig Sphere? Laugh out loud. I wonder if I have that one on DVD…