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.

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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.

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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

202.628.1005

www.oyamel.com

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!

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Strip Mall Saigon

Though it’s lesser-known than some other Asian cuisines and has fewer dining options, Vietnamese food has so much to offer the curious chow hound, with its fresh, healthful Buddhist slant and its curious Cantonese and French influences. When sampling Vietnamese cuisine, you may detect a harmony of taste sensations, or find yourself struck by the delicate balance of flavors. This is no mistake – Vietnamese cooking is designed around the very concepts of balance and harmony, appealing to the five senses, and playing off yin and yang. The Asian principle of “five elements” influences Vietnamese cooking not only in appealing to the five senses, but efforts are made to incorporate the traditional five colors (white, green, yellow, red, and black), as well as five spices, and five types of nutrients, all in the name of balance and harmony. Sounds like hard work, but all that effort seems to have created a cuisine that is really something special. And it’s really quite fascinating (and delicious) to learn about!

For those unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine, a great introduction can be had at the artful and friendly Falls Church, Virginia restaurant, Present (6678 Arlington Blvd, 703.531.1881). This unassuming strip mall staple was named one of the area’s 100 Very Best Restaurants by the Washingtonian, and was given three starts by the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema (and he’s not exactly giving those stars away!)

I’ve been eating Vietnamese food for many years now, but my dear friends Mac and Christopher, who dined with me, were new to this type of cuisine, so it was fun to see their reactions to the fresh new flavors and presentations. Mac had never seen the traditional Vietnamese-style summer roll, with bright pink shrimp visible through the  semi-transparent rice paper. However, the star of the appetizer round was Present’s “Smokey Petal,” a delicate and meaty sauté of baby clams and herbs, served in an impressive, edible rice cracker bowl (pictured above).

I should mention that it had stormed quite heavily the day of our visit, and the restaurant had lost power for a while, which resulted in a bit of confusion with the service. However, the staff is very friendly and helpful. Knowing that Mac was new to Vietnamese food, our waiter let him know he was ordering the wrong spring roll, and urged him toward another choice. Hmmm. Upon serving our entrees, when the waiter noticed that the chef prepared the tamarind duck for me instead of the orange duck I’d ordered, he assured me that the tamarind duck was a better dish anyway. Why worry? (While this would anger some diners, I’m pretty easy – and I was torn between the orange and tamarind duck to begin with.) In all, the three of us were quite pleased with Present’s offerings, and found the service and decor to be pleasant and charming. We shall return.

Shortly after moving to DC, my friend Justin introduced me to another Virginia strip mall favorite offering Vietnamese fare: the popular local chain Phở 75 (1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209, 703.525.7355, among many other locations). Pronounced “FUH”, phở is a traditional Vietnamese soup – spiced beef broth, noodles, and shaved onion, with your choice of meat, such as brisket, eye of round steak, or even tiny meatballs, all for under 8 bucks for a large bowl. Adventurous eaters may want to try the tendon or tripe! Here, phở is served with delicious accompaniments such as fresh lime, anise-y Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, and jalapeño slices. (I’ve heard that these accompaniments are not exactly culinarily authentic, but they sure make for a great eating experience!) Squeeze bottles of Sriracha hot sauce and hoisin sauce are shared on each table. Something interesting: I’ve heard that, traditionally speaking, phở is the only Vietnamese dinner dish served in individual portions; all other Vietnamese dishes are meant to be served family-style.

Be warned, you are coming here strictly for the food. The restaurant is about as charming as a warehouse, and you’ll likely have to wait a bit. But it will be well worth it.

To be sure, one of the perks of being a Washigntonian is our proximity to all of the great Asian communities of northern Virginia – and the fantastic markets and restaurants therein. However, there are some great choices right here in the District as well, including the Vietnamese offerings at Phở 14 (no affiliation with Phở 75, 1436 Park Road NW, Washington, DC 20010, 202.986.2326). On an unassuming block in Columbia Heights, Phở 14 offers the traditional soup for $7.95 – 8.95, as well as a decent selection of other Vietnamese fare, including salads and rice dishes ($8.95 – 10.95), as well as stir-fry and vermicelli dishes with meat selections that run the gamut from tofu to pork meatballs to chicken to squid ($7.95 – 13.95). You can also try another famous Vietnamese dish at Phở 14, the bánh mì sandwich (starting at just $3.99), a must-try for any aspiring international foodie.

Bánh mì is actually the name of a type of French-influenced Vietnamese baguette, but it has come to be known as the type of sandwich served on it as well. The sandwich is packed with savory delights – pickled carrot and daikon radish, cilantro, mayo, a touch of soy sauce. Again, we see the French influence in Vietnamese food with a surprise ingredient: liver pâté. Your choice of several varieties of meat are available to make a traditional bánh mì: beef (pictured below), pork, chicken, fish or tofu. Bánh mì sandwiches have an almost cult-like following, and Phở 14 provides a worthy contender at a great price. (In fact, in addition to the bánh mì’s unique and fantastic flavor, the sandwich’s loyal following may have something to do with its budget-friendliness as well! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one priced over 6 bucks or so.)I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll add Vietnamese food to your list of things to try if you haven’t tried it already. Your first taste won’t be your last – phở sure!

Turning Japanese

Tiny orbs of orange salmon roe exploding in your mouth like tiny firecrackers… delicate slabs of sea urchin (uni) melting away on your tongue, so sweet and creamy, they belong on an ice cream cone… rare and precious horse mackerel magically appearing on your sushi sampler, making you feel like some sort of dignitary… you close your eyes and chew slowly, tasting the incredibly fresh, salty richness. You think, This is the very taste of the sea

Hey, this ain’t so so bad for a Monday night!

Okay, so maybe I’m going  a little overboard. But guys, I’m tellin’ ya, Kushi Izakaya & Sushi (at CityVista 465 K St NW, Washington, DC 20001, 202.682.3123) really is something to write home about. I was joined by my handsome and intelligent friend Yoshi, and since he was born in Japan, I was extra-thrilled to benefit from his extensive food knowledge. We began with the spectacular Chef’s Sashimi Choice ($40, pictured above), which is  a sampling of 8 types of fish, two pieces each (we received three pieces of most), including the aforementioned delights as well as otoro (extra-fatty tuna), shrimp, salmon, and more.

We moved onto a couple of Kobacki (small plates) including some cherrystone clams (pictured left), and the beloved subject of many of our conversations, pork belly. If you’re not familiar with pork belly, it’s basically a bacon steak. What could possibly go wrong? (In fact, the other night, Yoshi and I had a long conversation about pork belly via text message, in which we even traded several pictures. I may have met my foodie match with this guy!) Anyway, the pork belly was braised in a Japanese-syle in broth with a bit of okra and carrot, and was served with a smear of beautiful mustard. It was meltingly tender, fatty, and delicious, as pork belly should be.

Next we sampled a few offerings from the grill. Kushi grills in two styles: Kushiyaki (wood grill), and Robata (charcoal grill).

The Kushiyaki (pictured above) comes in small 2.5-ounce portions ($3 – 10), perfect for sharing and tasting. We tried the (right to left) pork belly (of course), chicken thigh, chicken liver (with a sweet and crunchy grill flavor on the outside, and a rich, dense texture on the inside), chicken breast with plum sauce and shiso leaf, and asparagus wrapped in bacon. I know what you’re thinking: how much pork fat could we possibly cram into one dinner? After this night, I’m not sure if I’m going to the gym or to hell…