Street Birria

My favorite Birria Stand (Image by Nick Farr CC BY-SA 3.0)

The tacos at this particular puesto used to be pretty good, but the old man seems to have retired and they’ve gone downhill quite a bit since then, as confirmed by Paco from the lavanderia.

This order reminded him of his first few tacos the night he landed here, the DF, CDMX, Mexico City — México. They were at the family’s favorite taco restaurant on the edges of a neighborhood he’d eventually get to know as his own. Sure, they were good, but they weren’t great. Be one a foreigner or native, it’s hard to know what real life in Mexico is like until you understand a struggle justified by the joy in finding foods that make the whatever seem worthwhile.

“What a remarkable change,” he thought, not necessarily one where his opinions or circumstances had changed as much as a failure to discover now corrected. He frequently argued with the family about the foods from Gringolandia he missed so much, how not even the spiciest sauces could mask the blandness of what was served in the aspirational restaurants frequented by the gated community class.

In a way, he was right. His mistake was centered around his American notions of beef. Huge, thick cuts whose marbling signals a kind of Gringo largesse, whose preparation rarely involves more than a little salt and strategically applied heat. Like so many other “simple” things that become “complicated” in Mexico, meats are more often used a canvas, a starting point for marinades, stews, arrays of spices and complex cooking techniques as elaborate as digging a hole in the ground and waiting a few weeks.

Milanesa. Asar. Birria. The thin and usually marinated or otherwise lathered cuts of whatever, sliced a little thicker than a coffee filter or shredded with a precise abandon and found on the street under pop tents and portable shacks marked by akwardly designed vinyl banners and names perennially framed in quotation marks. The family was, in the end, right about how incredible the food is here. They were just wrong on where to get it. This is just one face of the elusive “real Mexico” he had to discover on his own.

On his way to the Birria stand, the one whose maestro always recognized him and the other neighborhood regulars, he passed by many of the elegant looking restaurants that served mediocre versions of what he used to enjoy in New York. He spent way too much money and time on the family sitting at a large tables of 8 yet feeling a loneliness impossible to duplicate were he to dine by himself. He spent way too much time in his head on these occasions, tempted by the smell of what was cooking in the streets, what the valets bought with their tips as only the really poor ate what the house offered them for free.

In a way, he thought, this was analogous to what brought him here, though he didn’t see it at the time. It’s hard for those born into privilege in any country to see past plastic plates covered in plastic sheets, to taste past the presentation. Had the frenemies he eventually cast off taught him nothing? No, he thought, this plastic stool isn’t even remotely as comfortable as the thronelike chairs of Polanco and Santa Fe. But the Birria is amazing enough to make you forget you’re standing, just as amazing as the peace of being free from unrealistic, untenable expectations.