I’m in an SUV with a handful of other transplanted California-Mexicans, headed to East Boston for the tacos of our youth. I’ve cobbled together a list of promising eateries, hoping we’ll finally stumble across a plate capable of satisfying all of us. This has been a years-long quest. None of us are terribly optimistic about good tacos on this coast. We park on Bennington Street across from our first stop, Taqueria Jalisco, hoping the letdown will not be too swift.
I had called my mom earlier in the week to recall the beginning of my taco obsession. Probably some party, she said, and by this she means at a Moose Lodge back in Del Rey Oaks, Calif., near Monterey, packed with relatives celebrating a wedding or birthday. My grandfather would be near the mariachi, helping belt out the lovelorn lyrics to “Volver, Volver.” Young cousins would be underfoot as aunties gossiped. And there’d a be a table along some back wall, where large foil pans held the spread: smoky barbecue chicken, crunchy iceberg lettuce salad, glutinous Italian dressing, dinner rolls, and store-brand sodas lined up like bowling pins to wash it down.
Sometimes there’d be a special pan — often the first to empty — with the makings for carnitas tacos: pork butt slow-cooked in lard until meltingly tender and then heated so the outer pieces were crispy. We’d heap the savory meat into a double layer of warm, white corn tortillas, and top it with chopped onions, cilantro, a sprinkle of salt, and a squeeze of lime. Maybe add some salsa. I dream of those tacos. They taste like home.
But trying to find them in Massachusetts, where less than 1 percent of the population is Mexican, has been a sour experience. From taco truck to taco bar to restaurant, the seasoning has been off, the texture limp, or worse, the taco so swaddled in cheese or sour cream, lettuce, and sauce that I’ve wanted to roll the edges of the tortilla and call it what it is — a burrito.
In self-defense, I finally cooked my way through half a dozen recipes before I found Lisa Fain’s blog, Homesick Texan, and a four-ingredient road map for carnitas that even my nana has dubbed delicious. A seventh-generation Texan living in New York, Fain told me of her own mid-’90s taco quest, taking public transit from Manhattan to the middle of New Jersey in search of the Tex-Mex dishes she loved. “I realized I was going to have to cook if I wanted the food I grew up eating,” says Fain, now the author of two cookbooks, including the recent “The Homesick Texan’s Family Table.” She tells me, “I’m not as crazy as I used to be because I’m cooking all the time, but I’m always curious to try a new place.”
‘Authenticity is not really something that reaches back to the ancient Aztecs.’
Like Fain, I am still lured by each well-meaning recommendation and good restaurant review. I’ve gulped back every disappointment with a margarita.
University of Toronto history professor Jeffrey Pilcher, who wrote “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food,” isn’t surprised. First, he says, what we think of as authentic Mexican cuisine is actually a relatively modern fusion of food cultures. Tacos al pastor — for some a quintessential taste of Mexico, made with chile-seasoned, spit-grilled pork and charred pineapple — is about as old as a baby boomer, and has its roots in Lebanese cuisine. When the children of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico began making tacos, they used the vertical rotisseries their parents had for making shawarma. “Authenticity is not really something that reaches back to the ancient Aztecs,” Pilcher says.
So there is no ideal taco, only favorites shaped by regional and personal preferences.
Second, Pilcher adds, we tend to canonize the tastes that evoke beloved memories. And that means finding their equal outside of the moment can be nearly impossible.
I’ve almost recognized the mariachi song wailing from a speaker when our tacos arrive from Taqueria Jalisco’s kitchen. Around us, families overflow the four other tables, slurping menudo — chunks of tripe swimming in a rustic, red-chile broth — and tucking back multiple tacos. The owner, whose parents once ran taco trucks in Gridley, Calif., has decorated the place with Spanish tiles and the usual pastoral paintings of agave fields and farmers with burros.
My stomach flutters like I’m on a first date as I eye my plate, a pair of small corn tortillas piled with the requisite pork, onions, and cilantro. I savor the slightly bacony flavor, but as Pilcher predicted, it doesn’t transport me home. The meat isn’t quite as crispy as it should be, I think, the fat not quite rendered to full flavor.
I’d eat here again but I’m only in like, not love. The group agrees.
The next few restaurants are a bust. One has savory tamales — usually meat wrapped in a starchy corn dough and steamed — but serves plain pork tacos that are indistinguishable from the al pastor. And both tacos curl my tongue with a taste like drippings left too long in a cast iron pan.
A few hours later, we’re lured by the sound of live mariachi into a place on Broadway in Chelsea that is not on my list. The troupe sings “Volver, Volver” when I ask, but it’s small consolation after I realize my taco is a cold tortilla filled with Jell-O-like cubes of pork fat. We call it a day.
The next afternoon, we drive to Olecito in Cambridge, where we sit on stools at a metal-topped bar and drink glass bottles of mango-flavored Jarritos, a sugary Mexican soda brand that always reminds me of Popsicles melting in summer. When I pull my taco from its foil wrap I find a coleslaw-like mix of pickled cabbage and mango salsa that in my mind should be paired with fish. My mouth agrees — the first bite is a confusing punch of tropical fruit that’s too Baja California.
I’m starting to think we’ll never find my kind of taco.
But then we’re on Western Avenue, headed out of Cambridge toward Allston, when we spot a purple sign advertising “Beantown Taqueria: Mexican soul food.” The car stops on a dime.
A few minutes later we’re sitting under a red and white umbrella on the restaurant’s patio, staring down our carnitas, which are laid out on a homemade, oil-fried corn tortilla and crowned with onion and cilantro. Our waiter Lalo, a fellow Mexican transplant, is adamant about the presentation. “I mean, carnitas. Why would you want to smother that in anything else?” he asks.
The pork has a chip-like crunch that yields to the fat-buttered meat beneath. The only difference from the taco of my dreams is the tortilla. Its light frying isn’t something I’m used to, but after the bad tacos we’ve had I won’t quibble.
We eventually try four more venues in the coming days. One place serves taco meat that tastes of barbecue sauce.
And at El Pelon Taqueria in The Fenway, the carnitas are all wrong, topped with pickled purple cabbage and cucumbers, and so juicy they sink through both a smear of refried beans and the tortillas. Another restaurant’s tacos arrive so salty that it takes a few puckering bites to realize the tortilla is made of flour not corn.
Only at Lone Star Taco Bar, on Cambridge Street in Allston, do I again find a little solace. The pork here has been simmered in lard, like a French confit — after being tossed in salt, cumin, and black pepper, and left to rest for a day. A bit of crisping finishes things off, before the meat is dressed in onion, cilantro, and a dash of queso fresco — a crumbly white cheese — and a spoonful of salsa verde, and presented on a house-made corn tortilla. “Very simple, taco-truck style,” says Lone Star co-owner Max Toste, who modeled the dish after his favorite taco stands in California.
Lone Star has almost nailed it. Almost.
Maybe in Massachusetts, I will never be satisfied. When it comes to tacos, I guess I’m just going to have to go home.