Thursday, October 20, 2011

Honduras Bites Back - A Ride on Con Sabor a Mi Patria

Now this a food truck.  A twenty-year-old delivery truck retrofitted with propane heat and refrigeration, parked in the crowded lot of a supermercado latino, and badly hand-lettered, curiously enough, on its side with the words Con Sabor A Mi Patria, whose literal word-for-word translation is with flavor of my country.  For our purposes, we'll call her Flavor Country.  We'll call her a food truck in its purest form.  Not the kind that peddles sprout wraps to Federal luncheoneers on their noon breaks.  Not the kind that traffics to yuppie foodie douchbags questing for the most authentic turkey burger on wheels.  Not the kind that sells you cupcakes, the crack of food nostalgia that robs you of real childhood memories one red velvety bite at a time.  No.  This truck is the real deal.  A direct blood descendent of the chuck wagon, or better, those silver-gleaming roach coaches that first brought hot breakfasts and lunches to an army of American laborers, and which allowed iron workers and welders, for the very first time, to return to work with hamburger grease on their fingers and yellow mustard on their chins.  This is what Flavor Country surely represents.  A mighty gastronomic ship of authentic Latino cuisine.  A truck that repudiates, with a perfectly pitched fuck you, the current food truck fad of falafel trucks and frozen yogurt stands rolling around Washington on oversized Firestones.  Flavor Country calls to me like a siren's song.  And it would take a veritable army of health inspectors to keep me away.

The first thing I realize about Flavor Country is that ordering in English is not an option.  This is a Spanish-only operation, boy-o, not just in cuisine, but in language as well.  There are two women inside Flavor Country.  Both middle aged.  Both with gold teeth and hair dyed the color of a Texaco sign.  They look at me with the smiling wonder of tourists watching of a Yellowstone Grizzly wander up to their minivan intent on walking away with a belly full of food.  I nod at the women and smile back.  Greetings and salutations are perfunctorily polite and one of the women inside Flavor Country points me to the menu painted on the side of the truck.  What I see are all the familiar classics of Central American Cuisine.  Pupusas.  Carne Asada.  Baleadas.  Bistec Encebollado.  They're all here.  The menu is a hall of fame of Latino gastronomy.  What I fail to notice, however, is the large Honduran flag painted bottom and center of the menu.  But I've already blown through a thousand STOP signs in my adult life, so why fret over just one more left in my rearview mirror.

After a moment's contemplation, I decide to go with the two all-too-familiar golden oldies of Latino cooking:  tacos and enchiladas.  I know, I know.  This is the gastronomic equivalent of asking to hear a band of pimpled eighteen-year-olds with knock-off brand Les Pauls cover Stairway to Heaven, a song no one, and I mean no one, needs to hear ever again.  Ever.  But in my defense, by hearing those pimpled eighteen-year-olds butcher (or not) Page and Plant, by hearing if the singer can handle Plant's vocal range or Page's quiet masterpiece of a guitar solo, you'll quickly know if this band is any good or not.  So it is with my order of tacos and enchiladas, con todo, y muy caliente.  One bite of each dish, and I'll know if Flavor Country is as great as she appears to be, the food truck of all food trucks.  The mothership of ethnic flavor.  But something in my order has troubled the cooks.  The women inside the truck discuss my request in hushed voices and at troubling length.  A minute goes by.  Then two.  They shake their heads and argue quietly about some culinary impasse I've created with my order.  They bicker a moment longer, then inform me, their waiting customer, that my stomach is simply not suited for what I've asked for, that con todo may, in fact, complicate my life in ways I will surely find unpleasant.

"Soy gringo, si, pero mi estomago es muy fuerte," I assure them.

They look dubious of my claims of intestinal fortitude, then share a no me importa shrug and go about the business of cooking my lunch.  While one woman is bent over the flattop grill, searing the animal protein of my lunch, skirt steak and ground beef it would appear, the other asks me what I'd like to drink.  The question catches me off guard.  I'm so wrapped up in watching the woman work the propane-heated grill that I balk at the matter of a culinary chaser.  So I order a Coke.  This is not something I often drink in life.  Not that I have anything against cola, per se.  I do, however, kindle a pure and unadulterated hostility against high-fructose corn syrup.  It's the devil in your drink.  The Type ll diabetes in your can.  High-fructose corn syrup can go fuck itself.  But it's what I end up drinking with my lunch.  And it represents yet another STOP sign that I blithely blow through on the way to the gastronomic calamity I'm about to experience.  The can she hands me has just come the low-boy reach-in refrigerator, and yet it's almost warm to the touch.

Danger Will Robinson.

Another minute or two later, and my lunch is ready, delivered in styrofoam clamshells and bagged in plastic.  I smile, pay, bid the cooks of Flavor Country a heartfelt adios, and abscond with my lunch like someone at a yard sale who has just purchased an original Jackson Pollock for the price of a single, 1983 copy of Mad magazine.  To the victor go the spoils, as they say.  And yet, when I find a favorite nearby park bench and open the clamshell containing my enchiladas, something is not quite commensurate with triumph.  The enchiladas have been served open faced, over fried flour tortillas, and topped with a nearly unrecognizable melange of iceberg lettuce, farmer's cheese, and a near-tasteless red sauce which eerily resembles blood.

So I put that clamshell aside and move on to the tacos.  Everything amiss in the world can be righted by a good taco, yes?  Or no.  These tacos seem anemic somehow.    Lifeless and pale.  They are, without question, fully recognizable as tacos, but, on closer look, appear as taco imposters, taco doppelgangers, who might have mastered the look of a taco, but who have somehow botched the task of learning the taco's essence. 

Okay.  Perhaps I've judged too hastily.  I've let appearances taint what will otherwise be a tasty and truly authentic Honduran culinary experience.  Presentation is for suckers, right?  It's what lives at the end of your fork that really and truly matter, no?  So return, do I, con el tenedor, to the enchiladas.  I go at them.  I tear them up.  I really shovel it in.

And I am deeply unimpressed.

What I find under all that farmer's cheese and iceberg lettuce is a greasy mess of unseasoned ground beef, hard-boiled eggs, lima beens, peas, and carrots.  It's the everything-but-the kitchen sink approach to gastronomy that is the signature of nations whose cuisine was born from pure and abject poverty, and where the inclusion of such dispirit ingredients speaks to a wealth only imagined, far off in a future that never comes, and wealth that is never ever real.

So I quit while I'm still ahead and yet cramp-free, and move on to the tacos.  Put me on death row and have me choose a last meal, and if the prison kitchen is out of fried chicken and pork ribs, then for my last meal tacos it will be.  But not these tacos.  Not on your life.  One bite unmasks these tacos for the tacos they were only pretending to be.  What had appeared to be skirt steak is a form of protein heretofore unknown to me (which leaves only monkey for those of you keeping score at home).  The corn tortillas have been steamed into a soggy state of limp flavorlessness, and what little seasoning adorns the protein comes in the form of an impotent dice of cilantro and onion.

Fail.  Abort.  This food sucks.

Or does it?  Is the food really this bad or have I brought my yuppie Anglo expectations to a national cuisine that defies such notions of cultural and culinary short hand?  Does it mean that because I've once had the dubious pleasure of eating a hamburger from, say, McDonald's, all other hamburgers, however "authentic," that fail to resemble the McDonald's prototype suck despite their own merits?

Would I be better off waiting in another food truck line for turkey burgers and falafel and veggie wraps, and eager, as I should be, to pay with my earth-friendly debit card (because, Dude, Cash = Slavery, or haven't you heard)?

Or does the question of my hating this food get even trickier?

Does that fact that this food comes from an "authentic" Honduran food truck render it intrinsically better than the far tastier faux-ethnic food at, say, Baja Fresh, which, in my albeit limited experience, is also prepared by "authentic" Latino line cooks over open flame.

Yes and no.  None of the above and all of the above.  Simultaneously and never at the same time.

Which is to say that while the food of Flavor Country might very well be truly delicious, truly authentic Honduran food, and most excellent on its own cultural and gastronomic terms, this gringo palate prefers to pass on it as a national cuisine.  Chalk it up to my own shortcomings and my own ruin as an eater at the hands of all the Mexican street cooks I have known, and whose wily use of low heat to break down beef fat in its sundry forms (think tongue and brains) and whose ability to highly season food with a few simple, elemental spices (think cumin and chili powder for starters) have proven, for this stupid white man, at least, positively transcendent, time and time again.

Have I failed my lovely lady friends of Flavor Country?  Perhaps.  Perhaps they too failed me, however.  For how did I spend next several hours contemplating my culinary experience?  In a pose made famous by Rodin's The Thinker while doing a Jackson Pollock on my own toilet bowl.

This gringo finds himself attached to the miracle of modern refrigeration.

I'll see you tomorrow at Baja Fresh.

Hasta nunca, Con Sabor a Mi Patria.