Let’s call this the turducken business model for culinary success. To wit: if stuffing a chicken into a duck and inside a turkey gives us turducken, then surely stuffing a taco bar into a liquor store and inside a gas station offers us the same misguided entrepreneurial portmanteau that is Taco Bar. Situated inside a drab and perfectly unremarkable W Express gas station and set contiguous to the Lube Center and your typical soul-sucking suburban strip sprawl, Taco Bar is a culinary dead zone, a no-one-here-gets-out-alive kind of place, beautifully bad, surely, but deliciously devoid of hipster irony and foodie scenester self-congratulations inherent in discovering the worst restaurant location ever, which, following the inverted sentential logic on which our hipster Bizarro Food World now runs, makes it the best restaurant location ever. But this is Gaithersburg, Maryland. A place where coolness crawls off to curl up and die. How better for a restaurateur to attract the culinary life-blood of foot traffic than to locate his business at the great American confluence of petroleum and booze. Surely the happy motorist, suddenly finding himself peckish, is equally inclined to order the taqitos fritos as is a pro-card-carrying booze hound well into his two-day bender intent on shoving as much choriqueso into his gobhole to keep his blood-alcohol ratio under that magical .08. It’s pure genius. It’s so wrong that it’s somehow right. It’s also why on a cold February day with better things to do I would drive over an hour to a “city” I abhor to eat a fucking gas station taco.
The idea of pairing restaurants and gas stations is old as motoring itself. The advent of the automobile is arguably the single most important event in American gastronomy since the advent of refrigeration. It’s the culinary Big Bang of the early 20th Century. Cars have determined how we eat. Where we eat. What we eat. The idea that road food should not be both delicious and healthful is the cultural blight and condition of late-modernity whose proliferation I blame on those culinary Evil Empires who dispatch black-hearted henchman disguised as kings and clowns to peddle their fecal-infused shit burgers to children while simultaneously dumbing-down the collective culinary IQs of young Americans and saddling them with the burden of carrying Type II diabetes to an early grave. Some of the greatest meals of my life have been eaten inside gas stations. I shit you not. There was the best cheeseburger of my life (so far) in that Bucksnort, Tennessee, Shell station. The best menudo I’ve ever put in my mouth courtesy of that combination gas station/laundromat in south Phoenix. Food that enlivens the inner Neal Cassidy road warrior in every American motorist and which sets our highways ablaze with eaters made happy by truly great gas-n-go culinary achievement.
Taco Bar of Gaithersburg, Maryland, is such a magical place. Park your car past the petrol pumps, walk inside liquor store crowded with wine bottles, and you’ll find of Washington’s tiniest and most unlikely culinary treasures. I ordered six tacos. That’s one of every taco that Taco Bar offers con horchata to wash it all down. I was soon given a single, white styrofoam plate, on which all six tacos were laid out, concentrically, with laudable aesthetic aptitude, resulting in wrist-spraining heft. If meat is murder, as a cherished band of my youth alleges, then I was the Charles Manson to this carnage of what was surely a three-pound meat massacre.
Taco Bar emphatically avows strict attendance to a purely Mexican taco making orthodoxy (it calls itself Fast Mexican Food, no less), but what I received was more Salvadoran than Mexican in that my six different proteins were laid atop their twelve corn tortillas (double-ply, yo) naked of any cheese or sour cream or salsa. The lovely matron who took my order directed me to the Fixin’s Bar (to co-opt the parlance of the Roy Rogers burger joints of my youth) and invited me to partake of complimentary salsas and peppers. I declined. I took the naked meat before me as a sign. A dare, in fact. For here were food purveyors bold enough not to hide behind the fake beards and Grocho noses of condiments and customer-driven seasoning. So I picked up my plastic fork and dug in. (The tacos pictured below were later hired at Taco Bar as body-doubles for that all-important money shot required of this exercise in food porn.)
I expected my first taco to be my least favorite. Pollo. Chicken. The protein of the uninspired eaters and cooks alike and usually a culinary yawn. But no. Oh, no. This chicken was marvelously seasoned, with notes simultaneously hinting at heat and sweet. And it was delightfully rico, rich, with a true depth of flavor. It was also tender and moist. Nothing in the protein was overcooked enough to bite back. It was a small, quiet triumph and a harbinger of better things to come.
Taco numero dos was the only offering that left me indifferent to the culinary good things at hand. It was the bistec, the grilled skirt steak, cubed to the verge of being minced, and the only protein at Taco Bar I found under-seasoned and overcooked. A bit of a culinary snooze fest. Something I could move beyond and remain untroubled by my decision to sneak off in the middle of the night, on tiptoes, without kissing my sleeping dinner companion adios.
The pastor taco is where I decided hints of culinary greatness were afoot at Taco Bar. The pork is first marinated in pineapple juice (a fruit whose juice, when not paired with vodka, most resembles, for me, the Libby’s Fruit Cocktail syrup of my 1970s Missouri youth), and then hit with high flame. Whomever was at the grill this day was a true master. The pork evoked the perfect meat-to-carbon ratio on the sear and the pineapple juice imparted nothing but acidity and complexity. Nothing Libby-like going on here and clearly what food enthusiasts consider winning.
Next came the chorizo. Bold. Zesty. But not overly seasoned or greasy. Good stuff. A solid, if predicable, offering. Chorizo is, for me, the veritable culinary spokesperson for Mexican street cuisine. Chorizo is the guy who tells you how rough he had it growing up around all the cholos and pachucos of his barrio before slipping you the business card of his buddy with the tooth-whitening business. The authenticity factor just doesn’t jive, but I am always happy to listen to him talk.
And then came the lengua, or beef tongue. Lawdy Miss Clawdy was this tongue taco good. Delicate, earthy, succulent, even grassy. And perfectly cooked. No. Let’s not say this tongue was cooked. Let’s say it was melted, for that’s what this otherwise tough and unforgiving section of offal did in my mouth, bite after bite, time and again. It melted. The offal wasn’t awful; it was delicious.
And if that not-insignificant culinary hat-trick we’re enough to place Taco Bar’s offerings in the realm of the real and serious culinary contenders, my final taco was among the most transcendent in recent memory. The suadero is rib meat grilled and shaved off the bone. It’s steaming pile of shredded protein, black carbon char, and melted animal fat dashed across a corn tortilla with the kind of haphazard greatness that will have you wondering where such a taco has been every waking moment of your adult life. Nothing I put in my mouth this day was better than the suadero.
And as for my usual attempts and identifying and quantifying so-called authenticity in “ethnic” eating establishments, I was given these signifiers for consideration: all-Latina staff who hand trimmed and portioned vast amounts of beef and pork well within plain view of me the entire duration of my stay; a decidedly all-Latino, all-Spanish speaking patronage (no gringos aqui, ese); a sign posted in Spanish warning patrons that eating the suadero might result in traces of rib bone being lodged in their throats; a small dog carried in under the pretense of pleasing the matron with its curly-haired cuteness, but which, I suspect, was brought in, via some unseen Bat Signal, to nibble my considerable all-meat droppings off the liquor store floor. (I’m bad with a fork, what can I say.)
Tacos at the Taco Bar. Were they the best tacos the best I’ve ever eaten? Not by a long shot. Were they the tacos the best I’ve ever eaten inside a liquor store shoved inside a gas station? Truly. Without a doubt.
Go buy some. Tacos are good for the soul. But you already knew that.
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