Saturday, January 24, 2015

Strange Bedfellows - La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria

Blink while you’re driving by and you’ll miss it.  But who could blame you.  Thousands of hungry motorists, no doubt, already have.  Secreted in a down-at-the-heels strip mall in the deeply unfashionable Hybla Valley section of Alexandria South, among a motley assembly of convenience stores, halal food purveyors, and kabab joints, sits the gastronomically unassuming and totally unpretentious La Mexicana Bakery and Taqueria, home to what are easily some of the best tacos in Northern Virginia.  Best tacos?  Really, you ask.  Big words, I know.  Write best in a blog and it’s game on.  Binary punches will be thrown.  There will be blood.  The taco blogosphere is fraught with the same kind of cultish and cut-throat fanaticism and fetishism one finds in the world of bar-b-que, where bloggers debate the virtues of smoked pig with the same kind of bug-eyed, vein-popping frenzy that early architects of the New Testament arm-wrestled over when considering which gospels were canonical, and which were heretical–the latter transgression being punishable by a roasting on the stake, of course.  This I understand.  But the tacos of La Mexicana have a unique leg-up on the competition insofar as they enjoy the rare pedigree (for DC area taco makers) of actually being made by a–gasp–real live Mexican.

On a recent and ill-advised sorte into Chipotle, I was asked by my friendly taco maker what kind of rice, and which kind of beans, I wanted on my taco.  Rice and beans on a taco?  The very idea that a person composed of purely Hispanic DNA, no matter the country of origin, no matter the fact that the taco is indigenous to a relatively small geographical area, would ask me this did what panic or, in my case, blind rage does to a person:  it calls blood away from his brain, and directs the liver to produce large amounts of cholesterol to help his blood clot when he reaches over the sneeze guard to throttle the Chipotle worker, only to have his arm slashed for his efforts (yes, the good folks of Chipotle do, on occasion, use knives).  Of course, that I would assume my taco maker at Chipotle is an expert on tacos simply because that person is Latino/a makes about as much sense as having the same indignant bile redirected at me because white boy here (yep, that’s me) couldn’t produce, on demand, some culinary riff on say, the importance of sauerkraut in the ascendency of Teutonic tribalism in Western Europe.  I get it.  But being from a place matters when you’re selling the food from that place.  In my experience, Mexicans serve the best Mexican food.  The same goes for Poles, Peruvians, and the French.  The tacos of La Mexicana may not altogether be more “authentic” than other local tacos (I, for one, no longer know, exactly, what that word means) but it sure as shooting makes them among DC’s best.

I went on a Sunday afternoon.  While the rest of the gringo world watched football on television and fattened themselves on wings and pizza (why not apply my racially-insensitve generalizing to white people as well, I ask), I entered this humble little strip-mall eatery and was amazed.  For what astonished me was not the handful of post-iglesia families in their Sunday best, quietly munching their food, eyes on the soccer match on Telemundo (with nary a hipster to be seen).  No.  What amazed me was the smell.  Gone was the savory bouquet of seared meats, of larded beans, of saffron-kissed rice.  La Mexicana smelled like, well, like a bakery.  Butter cream.  Confectionary sugar.  A cool smell.  A clean smell.  The kind of odor that lingers in Federal buildings and banks.  And I wondered, momentarily, if La Mexicana had given up the taco business altogether to concentrate their talents on pastry, but the proprietor, the fabulous Carlos Benitez (he’s Columbian; his lovely wife/cook, Alicia, is from Mexico), assured me otherwise.  The tacos were good, locally famous, and I should consider eating one or two.  As is my habit, I ordered three:  beef, chicken, and pork.  And to drink, Carlos wondered.  My response, proffered in the interrogative, sounded innocent enough.  Did they, I wondered, have horchata.  They did, Carlos told me, and immediately I went dizzy in the head and weak in the knees.  To the uninitiated, horchata is a kind of rice milk flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar.  It gives the eater courage to test the outer limits of culinary spice and heat not only because it’s delicious, but because it acts as a fire extinguisher to the 10-alarm blaze raging in your mouth.  Crack’s got nothing on this stuff, folks, it’s that good.  At La Mexicana, the horchata comes ready-made in cups set inside a repository made of a reach-in fridge, and I grabbed one and took a seat, happy as a boy at Christmas.

The tacos soon arrived, and I knew, instantly, that something special was going on at La Mexicana.  Not for what I saw on my plate, exactly, but for what I didn’t see.  I didn’t see any dairy on my food.  No cheese.  No sour cream.  Just seared protein piled atop a two-ply tortilla configuration (standard) and garnished with cilantro, onion, and a hint of lime juice.  That’s it.  In the taco world, less is more.  The caliber of the protein is not disguised by some Lincoln beard and Groucho nose of culinary hocus pocus.  Oh, no.  Not here.  Here, the protein must go before the eater naked, the way a patient stands before a doctor.  The time for bullshit is over.  Taco and eater are together in the truth-telling business.  The taco is either good, or it isn’t.  Rarely is there any in-between.

So I ate.  I moved around my plate, clockwise, in this order:  beef to chicken to pork.  All were good.  Really, really good.  Perfectly seasoned.  Perfectly seared.  Everything a taco should be.  But it was the pork, the carnitas, that really got my attention.  So much, in fact, that I ordered three more.  Carlos looked at me they way a bartender regards the red-nosed lush who has just bolted eight shots of warm Jager, and who begs for eight more.  But Carlos put the order in, and I was soon able to face-plant into what I consider (at this point in my eating career) greatest carnitas to ever grace a Washington-area corn tortilla.

I don’t know how they do it, Carlos and Alicia.  I don’t know how they can produce the kind of spectacular taqueria fare inside a bakery that smells like the inside of your grandmother’s refrigerator.  It defies logic.  There must be a trick.  So I will investigate.  I will suss out the seemingly impossible accomplishment of producing this caliber of Mexican cuisine inside a restaurant that evokes the redolence of Wonder bread.  And I will eat the tacos.  You know I will.  I will return to eat, time and time again, until I–we, dear reader, we–have our answer.  We will unriddle this mystery.  And one thing is for sure:  it will be my pleasure.

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