Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Eating In Empty Lots - Part l - The Crab Shack

If farm-to-table is the Platonic ideal for the food production-to-consumption model, the whole pasture-to-pie hole routine, then surely ocean-to-foodtruck comes in a close second.  For what culinary encounter could be better than chancing upon a seafood purveyor beached in a gravel parking lot strangely redolent of Old Bay?  By what gastronomic kismet would have you able to simply (if randomly) roll up to this truly improbable foodtruck, only to drive off, minutes later, with a garbage bag full of steaming crustations and a quickening across your heart?  Because it’s written in the stars.  Because the sensei of gastronomic excellence have so ordained.  You will eat at The Crab Shack, grasshopper, and yes, you will like it.  Such is their decree.

I know of The Crab Shack only because it suddenly appeared in my neighborhood one morning in a weed-choked empty lot, between a rarely-driven schoolbus (shown beside; the owner operates a CDL class when the mood strikes) and a psychic/palm reader’s place of business, if that’s what they’re calling the business of reading palms, these days.  Why would a seafood truck be here, I wondered.  Stolen, I thought.  Left to rust, I speculated.  Tomfoolery, I decided.  Madness.  For what kind of lunatic would find an overgrown, abandoned lot in a mostly-residential (and highly unfashionable) neighborhood of Alexandria South suitable for peddling a highly-perishable food product from a trailer better suited to hauling ponies around the childrens' birthday circuit?

John would.  That’s who.  The sole proprietor of this unlikely enterprise.  And he's no madman.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  He’s comfortably into middle age and wears the hair, tattoos, and complexion of a Native American who has known hard work for most of his life.  An old soul.  Knowing and wise.  But also someone with whom you’d want to address in careful tones of deference and respect.  Someone who you’d want  to have your back in a barroom throwdown, someone who could likely drop his opponent like a bag of rocks.  And if that’s not reason enough to be nice when ordering, John’s elderly father hangs out inside the trailer as well.  Wears a Fedora.  Fingers a cane.  And never blinks through what can only be described as an ex-pugilist’s leer.  Imagine William S. Burroughs in the person of an elderly erstwhile crabber and you’ll have the idea, boy-o.

Seafood stands like this are commonplace across the American South.  Travel the two-lane black tops of the Virginia Tidewater, the Carolina Low Country, north to south, and you’ll encounter an almost-endless procession of shrimpers or crabbers peddling the day’s catch from the tarpaulin-covered backs of their bombed-out F-150s.  But here, in this part Northern Virginia, that never happens.  It simply isn’t done.  Fisherman do not sell their catch from pickups, let alone trailers retrofitted with refrigeration and the ability to steam and season one’s catch for roadside patrons.  The county does not let them.  To have John tell it, he wanted to locate on land he's owned for years.  But Fairfax County shook him down for thousands in licensing fees and permits (to protect, no doubt, the proprietary fiscal interests of such culinary brick-and-mortar fixtures as Hooterbees and T.G.I. McFucksters).

So here he is, beached in a gravel parking lot between the psychic’s place and a big yellow school bus, a place almost existential in the loneliness it evokes.  But John’s loss is our gain.  Because his Crab Shack is exactly the kind of food purveyance my neighborhood (or any neighborhood, for that matter) needs.  Local.  Seasonal.  Fresh as it gets.  Because John sources his crabs and shrimp from Wanchese, North Carolina, a fishing collective on Roanoke Island, Dare County, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, widely known for producing some of the finest crustations in the mid-Atlantic.

I stopped on a recent Saturday afternoon and approached this foodtruck misbegotten in the gastronomic wasteland that is this part of Fairfax County.  John greeted me.  He smiled.  Then he asked me what I’d like to eat.  I looked.  But my cursory glance at the menu was made superfluous by the sudden whiff of Old Bay adrift on the air.  Crabs.  A dozen, I said, followed by an emphatic and most polite please.  John left the trailer out the back door, threw a dozen of the little bastards in his steamer, and, moments later, walked out into the parking lot with a garbage bag full of the most glorious crabs I’ve yet encountered this season.  And as John tied off the bag and handed it to me, I understood by the glimmer in his eye that this was no mere food-for-money exchange.  This was more than that.  A proffering.  A gift.  A bequeathment.  Money had nothing to do with it.  For what John knew then, and what I was soon to learn as I ripped the bag open with my bare teeth, is that the act of sitting down at a wooden table in summer with a bag of perfectly steamed blue crabs and an ice-cold beer is one of the most transcendent culinary experiences a person can have.  Ever.  I experienced it.  And so should you.

The Crab Shack is located in the 5700 block of Telegraph Road in Alexandria, Virginia.  John is open for business (at the time of this writing) on weekends, midday to late afternoon.  Visit him.  Buy his food.  If you’re disinclined to eating in empty lots, I promise you a seat at my kitchen table.  And my beer is always cold.

Call John at 703.507.5607 for insight, wisdom, and directions.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Notes From the Underground - Lunch at Taqueria X

Everything about this culinary undertaking is against the law.  This taqueria.  My fellow luncheoneers (few as they are).  This drink in my hand.  The food on my plate. The immigrant woman cooking it.  All of it:  illegal.  But word on the street decries these tacos now before me as some of the best a Washingtonian will likely ever eat, so long as that same eater deigns to risk robbery, arrest, or poisoning by third-world food handling practices for what this underground eatery promises (on its own business card, no less) as sabrosos tacos Mexicanos, and what local chef friends swear to be the most authentic Mexican in the entire mid-Atlantic, even if eating it might land you a night in the pokey.  But arrest for food reportedly this good is a chance I’ll take.  Because if a life spent seeking kicks in such adrenaline-based and ill-advised enterprises as boxing, or motorcycles, or a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired flirtation with the American handgun, has taught me anything, it’s this:  when in doubt, never hesitate.  Just fucking do it.  Jump.  So here I am.  In this high-rise immigrant filing cabinet of an apartment building.  In this old lady’s teeny, tiny kitchen.  To break the law with the simple act of buying food.  So I lift a taco, one of four on two plates, and begin to eat.  What happens next defies retelling.  It’s the stuff of hallucination.  A synesthetic experience second to none.  I suddenly hear imaginary voices.  And accordion music.  And feel all-too-real heat from a Sonoran sun calling water onto my face, but from a fire within.  It’s as if I’m suddenly back in extreme southwestern Arizona, but a mile from the Rio Grande, where, in my wayward youth, I encountered the best tacos of my life.  This now is the kind of culinary out-of-body experience that has the angels of gastronomy telling me to walk toward the light.  And when I come to my senses (a sip of horchata breaks the spell) I see the duena standing there, behind the counter of her tiny kitchenette.  She’s nodding at me.  Grinning.  Beatific.  Implacable.  And all-knowing as the smiling Buddha.  She asks me a question in Spanish, a language I strangely now understand even better than my native own.  Te gustas?  Do I like the food?  A simple question requiring but a monosyllable, one way or the other, for response.  And for the first time in a very, very long time, I really have absolutely no idea what to say.

The trick to eating in an underground restaurant is, of course, to actually first find it.  They are elusive as Bigfoot.  Hard to hunt as the mythical snipe.  And their pursuit is, more often than not, a dupe’s errand that breaks hearts, ridicules appetites, and imparts the kind of self-loathing that makes you want to break shit with your fists.  How many times have I entered abandoned basements, snuck into apartments, all in the pursuit of carnitas or ramen, only to find an empty room in ruin with broken bottles, condoms wrappers, and the detritus of my own shattered dreams.  But my “intel” on Taqueria X (as we’ll call it) is solid.  It’s jake.  I have an address.  I have a phone number.  And best of all, I have a dining companion.  Someone who’s actually been here before.  So on a sunny Sunday after a brisk morning run, we head over to that strange and liminal space that bridges the equally strange neighborhoods of Chinatown and Dupont East (not the real neighborhoods, yo).  We find the find the building and call the number we’ve been given.  Someone answers, mutters something in Spanish, and hangs up.  A second-story window opens above us and a key fob flies out.  Everyone around us is watching this.  We are the only gringos around, conspicuous as Secret Service agents (my friend’s built like a brick house and rocking the blonde-and-blue thing), but no one contests our being here.  No one will meet our eyes.  So we enter a building that smells powerfully of every ramshackle immigrant flop house I’ve ever been in.  You know the smell.  Laundry detergent.  Pet urine.  The odor of unending physical toil.  But it also smells of food.  Boiled chicken.  Fried corn meal.  The promise of a full stomach.  The smell of hope.  So we take the stairs and find the door and knock.  We wait.  Nothing.  So we knock again.  The door opens and we are admitted into one of the smallest apartment kitchens I have ever seen.  There is an old man cooking.  And an old woman at the four-burner electric stove.  And their son.  The son invites us to lunch and we sit within arms reach of the kitchen counter at a card table next to four fellow lunchoneers who flirt dangerously, but wholly successfully, with hipsterness.  With six at the table, Taqueria X is now officially at capacity.  Maxed out.  Bulging at the seams.  Before me is a television playing Telemundo.  Behind me:  a wall of Mexican perfumes and beauty products, should the need arise.  We are asked what we’d like to drink.  Tecate comes cold out of a cooler.  My horchata is poured from an erstwhile flower vase.  Then we are asked what we’d like to eat.  There are menu cards on the table, but the menus are sin precios, without prices.  The duena is now looking at us, so we are careful to order much more than we will ever be able to eat.  I order chicken tamales, tacos de lengua, (beef tongue), tacos de res (beef) tacos de puerco y cabeza de res (pork and beef head), tacos al pastor (pressed pork).  My friend orders birria, a goat stew.  The duena nods as smiles, and within minutes, a feast of impossible bounty is laid out before us.  With a second nod from our host cook, we are invited to eat.

And this is when I begin to see things.  When I begin to hear imaginary music.  And when I, in the parlance of my youth, begin trippin balls.  It’s truly hallucinatory.  Because the food now before me is much more than lunch.  It’s food unsullied by gringo notions of food laws or refrigeration.  It’s food completely untouched by our profoundly fucked-up North American notion of food cultivation and often-schizophrenic sense of national cuisine.  It’s Mexican cuisine in its purest form.  It’s deeply and profoundly delicious.  So good, in fact that I’ve managed to dispatch my entire meal of four tacos and one tamale with such gnashing frenzy that my just-made hipster friends beside me are now looking at me the way zoo patrons might regard a spotted cheetah newly escaped of its cage.  But the duena is pleased.  She smiles and brings a serving of chapulines, or crickets, on a small plate.  My friend asks her in Spanish if they are fresh.  The duena chuckles and tells us she found them on the street that morning with the rats we just ate in our tacos.  The chapulines are at once earthy and refreshing in their crunch and spice.  They are, as everything here at Taqueria X, a revelation, pure and profound.

When it’s time to pay and leave, we ask for the bill.  But there is no bill.  Prices exist only in the duena’s head and nothing has been written down.  There is, however, the greater and far more ephemeral matter of how much we owe.  The idea rooted in the shaky calculus of how much food we consumed by a factor of just how much cash I might be carrying inside my brand new lululemon running pants.  The duena speaks: $45.  Not cheap, by any means, for what we’ve eaten, especially considering that with one well-placed phone call I could have the lights shut off in this joint.  But I’m purchasing far, far more than just lunch, am I not?  I’m paying for the experience itself, the element of risk, both hers and mine, the thrill of adventure.  I’m buying (if not merely renting) the culinary love child of the Aztecs and conquistador Cortes, the product of a five hundred year old gastronomic miscegenation between European and indigenous American cuisines.  All of it embodied in this tiny little woman.  All of it housed in this crammed little apartment with its Telemundo and wall of Mexican beauty products.  All of it delicious enough to make me bug out and lose my shit at a card table already thick with sock-headed hipsters. That this smiling little woman could be fined, jailed, or event deported for the act of illegally feeding paying strangers in her tiny home saddens me, deeply, and no doubt proves (in the starkest terms, I think) just how fucked up ideas regarding food cultivation and purveyance have gotten in North America.  That Monsanto (el Diablo primero) can peddle herbicide glyphosate (that's Roundup, sports fans), genetically engineered (GE) seed, and bovine growth hormone, at mind-boggling profit AND still sleep like babies at night is a far, far greater evil than this sweet little old lady slinging tacos in her home kitchen.  That McDonalds (el Diablo segundo) openly and freely puts ammonia-treated "beef product" (the now-infamous pink slime) infused with bovine fecal matter in its burgers is a far, far greater injustice than this immigrant family pouring me horchata from a decommissioned flower vase, no?  Can we not agree, to the person, that the risks of becoming sick or developing food-borne disease are far, far greater from consuming the shit that Monsanto is pimping than what this sweet old lady is serving in her own home?  Can we not agree that this so-called underground restaurant is emphatically NOT serving protein tainted with cow shit? 

The good news in all of this, friends and fellow eaters, is that for every Monsanto, monolith of un-Godly food cultivation that it is, there is a duena like this, serving the freshest and best food she can possibly produce.  And fresh and good the food at Taqueria X most certainly is.  It’s more than just good.  It’s an affirmation of the culinary possibilities that yet abound in this country and a testament to the culinary defiance of poor people feeding themselves through centuries of shared tradition and on their very own terms.

The only rub is that I can’t tell you where Taqueria X is.  That would be a betrayal.  A pinche gringo move.  So here’s the deal:  if I know you well enough, or if the degree of our separation is, say, less than two, contact me and I’ll give you the scoop.  I can tell you that Taqueria X is open only on the weekends, from 7AM to 7PM.  I can also tell you I will surely be there when you do visit.  I’ll be eating crickets.  And I’ll be walking Spanish down the hall.