subject: La Michoacana
take-out vehicle: styrofoam box
I went to Tucson a few years ago to visit some friends, and while I was there, we all had dinner at a small, authentic taqueria. The tacos I got there, without a doubt, were the best I had ever tasted. Besides being hands-down fantastic, that meal really illustrated to me the shocking difference between Mexican food on the West cost and on the East coast. Why, I asked back then, couldn't we have any decent tacos in Charlottesville?
Well, they arrived about a year and half ago under the banner of La Michoacana. I can't say they make the best tacos in town (there are still a few I haven't tried), but I'd be willing to wager a cookie or two that they do. For those who haven't been, La Michoacana won't impress you with its decor or its ambiance, and it certainly won't draw you in with a fancy exterior (it shares a small building with Merry Maids on E. High Street). What it will do, however, is showcase how tacos are supposed to be made.
I'm not sure how many times I've been to La Michoacana, but I've been enough to watch them grow as a business. They recently doubled their seating capacity by rearranging the now-open kitchen, and the line is a little bit longer every time I go. This visit was remarkable because, for the first time, Caucasian people outnumbered the Mexican-American staff. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that they're doing well, but I used to get the feeling, when I would visit and be one of but two Caucasian people in there, that I was in on some little secret. Now, not so much. But at least they're not in danger of closing.
On this visit, I ordered three taco locos mexicanos: tacos made with a mixture of shredded chicken (pollo), shredded pork (carnitas), and crumbled chorizo (chorizo) topped with cilantro and fresh diced onion. As sides, I chose a pickled jalapeno, avocado sauce, the mild salsa, and the fresh onion, carrot, and habanero salsa cruda.*
The tacos, as always, were made with fresh corn tortillas, which I've grown to very much appreciate. I never really liked them when I was younger because they were more porous (thus increasingly mushy) and rarely stayed intact while I ate them. Like the tortillas I had in Tucson, however, these tortillas were soft and malleable, yet firm and cohesive. It also helped that the meat, through which the chorizo's flavor carried entirely, was not overly greasy. Even the sauces I added did little to harm the tortillas.
Unfortunately, I did notice that there were a few chunks of potato in my meat. Not many, but definitely a few per taco. While not a unforgivable sin in these economic times, I was not at all happy to see such obvious filler. I'd never noticed them before, so perhaps they were only visiting and had firm plans to go back to where they came from. My fingers remain crossed.
The salsa and avocado sauce (called such because it seemed to be only pureed avocado with lime juice and water, not true guacamole) were very good. There were two salsas from which to choose: the milder tomato-based salsa and a spicier salsa verde. The salsa I chose was fairly mild but had an appreciable taste of dried, smoked chiles (if I had to guess, I'd say ancho and/or pasilla). The avocado sauce, on its own, was largely tasteless save for a hint of lime, yet on the taco it brought all the flavors of the meat, onion, cilantro, and salsa together quite nicely.
The curtido was another thing altogether. I remember the first time I tried it thinking it was only onions and carrots in vinegar. Silly me, I failed to notice the huge chunks of orange habanero hiding amongst the carrots. I remember being very glad that I'd gotten the large bottle of water with my order.
Now that I knew better than to dump it on willy-nilly, the curtido added a very pleasant amount of freshness and heat to the taco, which otherwise would have been defined by the spices of the meat and the salsa. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that I shied away from eating the almost fully intact habanero I had inadvertently picked up.)
I could have ordered the tacos with more familiar toppings, including lettuce, tomato, and sour cream, but, as I learned in Tucson, the main ingredient(s) of a taco shouldn't be covered up by unnecessary stuff, especially stuff that only dilutes the flavor of everything around it (I'm looking at you, lettuce and sour cream). To me, the taco should simply be about celebrating, and enriching, the flavor(s) of the main ingredient(s).
I'm glad to know that La Michoacana shares my view, but even more than that, I'm glad I don't have to buy a plane ticket to get real taco.
* Traditionally, Mexican salsas are supposed to be cooked, thin, and sauce-like. Salsa crudas, on the other hand, are more similar to "Americanized" salsas: fresh, thick, chunky, and great on a chip. In my opinion, this particular salsa cruda could also be classified as a salad due to the large size of its ingredients.