Don’t assume anything in Mexico. Or, for that matter, anywhere your travels might take you.
In Boca de Tomatlan there’s a little family run restaurant called Fernando’s, or maybe that’s not its name, but it is the name of it’s delightful chef; a singing chef at that. We enjoyed a delicious and inexpensive meal there on our first night and told Fernando we’d be back. And we were, the next day. But it was Sunday and, unbeknownst to us, many of Boca’s restaurants do not open on Sunday, Fernando’s being one.
I decided I’d cook and suggested stopping in at the supermarket. Bradford requested I cook something that didn’t end up wrapped in a tortilla. The main supermarket is rather small and has a funny smell. Some of the coolers don’t work; they are without light or chill. The odor is a mixture of bulk pet food and laundry soap strong enough to put both Bradford and I into sneezing fits. So, there we were wandering the narrow aisles browsing the shelves, sneezing away. Wondering more or less aimlessly. Oh, look! the tostados are set amongst rolls of scented toilet paper (yuck).
Paying always poses a challenge. Why are numbers so difficult? Bradford and I practice our Spanish numbers in the comfort of our casa but for some reason I get all flustered each time I’m at a cash register and I come across as a complete idiot. If the conversation were in English, it would sound something like this.
‘That’ll be 154 pesos.’
Then, me gesturing toward the register in hopes he will turn the little window around so I can read the amount.
Cashier staring blankly down at the floor.
Me counting my coins, ‘um 50?’
At home people line up, in Boca people gather round. And so it was that the number of those gathering round me, grew. I was bright red by this point and my embarrassment shut my brain right off. On this particular day, a young man in the ‘audience’ helped me out with his knowledge of English. I paid, said muchas gracias too many times, and left.
Bradford had already given up and was waiting for me outside.
Off we went in direction home. ‘Oh look, places are open!’ So there were, the convenient store, a clothing store and a taco stand. ‘Should we get tacos?’ ‘I don’t know, should we?’ Our walk slowed as we tried to make up our mind. There was one customer inside Tacos de Carnitas. He was a burly fellow, drinking beer and chatting up the owner/cook. We continued to hum and haw over whether or not to go in. Then I noticed the 8 1/2×11 piece of paper with ‘Tacos de Cabeza’ hand-printed on it, ‘we’re going in’. I knew it translated to head taco. I assumed that head taco must mean house taco, the taco of the house, yum! That’s got to be good. Where I got the idea that head anything means house something is beyond me. In my head, I imagined a steamed tortilla with some kind of meat, probably chicken, fresh tomato salsa, maybe some lettuce; the special of the day! We sat down in anticipation. The owner said, ‘uno?’ We said, ‘dos! Por favour.’ We were hungry. As we waited, we looked around the small open air ‘restaurant’; it was decorated with a large painting of a rooster and a plastic cow head with horns. ‘Do people eat rooster? What kind of meat do you think it is?’ I started to wonder. The cook asked us if we’d like cilantro. I said, ‘si!’ Cilantro? That’s different. Then came our tacos. Brought to us on plastic bag covered plates by a cute little girl. The plate held two small tacos piled with chopped up meat, onions and cilantro. Bradford and I dug in with gusto. After I gobbled up the first one, my appetite had been satiated enough for me to be able to give some attention to the food’s flavour. The meat tasted different, I thought. Hmm… cabeza, that means head. ‘Maybe it’s brain?’ I teased Bradford. In my mind, thoughts ran rampant. ‘Is this head meat? What is head meat? Could it really be brain?’ But those thoughts were being countered with more pleasant thoughts, like ‘it must be beef. Has to be. Beef tacos are so common, I’m sure it’s beef.’ ‘But why does it say ‘cabeza’?’ Is meat from a cow’s head still considered beef??
I continued eating the second taco. And anyway, I certainly wasn’t going to insult anyone by leaving remains to be thrown out along with the plastic bag plastic covering my plate. So, as I ate I thought about other things. ‘Why the plastic bag? Could it be because there was no water to wash the plates? Or the hands of the cook?’ Ignore. Ignore. Wisely, we ate up before discussing the possible contents of our taco. As we departed the establishment, we heard laughter from within. Bradford asked, ‘Are they laughing at us?’ ‘Of course not,’ I smiled. ‘They’re laughing with us.’
As we walked the 100m or so to our apartment, I commented on the greasy film in my mouth. ‘Boy, that meat was greasy, eh?’ When we got home, I did a little search on the internet. Turns out Taco de Cabeza is a popular dish in Mexico, popular enough to have its own entry on Wikipedia. And, it’s exactly what it says it is ‘head taco’, i.e., head of a cow taco. I told Bradford. We laughed and laughed, rolled around on the bed with tears in our eyes laughter. It was the kind of laughter one experiences when what one finds funny actually scares the hell out of them.
I was proud of us, eating like the locals. And let me tell you, the next day we discovered that this particular taco stand is THE place amoung the locals, it’s packed at lunch; folks of all ages eating up those cow head tacos.
In retrospect, the family was probably laughing at us, wondering if we knew what we’d eaten. I doubt they see too many foreigners, and for sure no gringos, eating Tacos de Cabeza, not by choice anyway.