Growing up in Japan, when I heard the word ‘taco’, I knew a good meal was coming. No, it’s not what you’re thinking, because sadly, there’s no good Mexican place in Tokyo. When a Japanese diner hears the Japanese word ‘taco’, he or she knows they’re not going to be served a Mexican classic, but instead, about to enjoy…octopus, tako. Most Japanese people wouldn’t know what a Mexican taco even looks like. I, however, was different. Thanks to a fancy grocery store that sold imported luxury items, I was familiar with the western version, having once seen a festive yellow box with some mysteriously shaped item inside. In the dark recesses of my mind, I wondered what this taco thing was all about. Can you imagine my excitement when I finally got my hands around a real taco? It was my turn, as now I was invited to this party of ground beef, shredded lettuce, and salsa.
Wouldn’t a place with the word ‘taco’ in its name, be the perfect restaurant to sample this Mexican delight? One of my college friends believed that theory and convinced me that my ‘introduction’ to tacos, be at Taco Bell. Unfortunately, the excitement transformed into annoyance upon my first bite. The sensation to hit my lips was salty, and the first chew led to crumble. I guess it happens to all rookie taco eaters at least once in their lifetimes — taco shell shatter. After one bite, my mighty taco had turned into a messy taco salad. The experience was so disappointing, that it derailed any curiosity I might have had about Mexican food for years to come. Until…
…about 10 years ago, I was sent on assignment to Los Angeles to study the culture of…low riders. Looking back, maybe they just wanted me killed? Anyway, I was happy that finally, my anthropology degree would pay off! During our lunch break, one of the coordinators took me to a Mexican place for lunch; an unassuming little taco stand in some industrial area of East Los Angeles that was equipped with metal bars that separated customers from cashier. In addition to that comforting scene, I noticed that all the menus were in Spanish. Feeling awkward, I was about to ask him if we could change our lunch plan. Surely there must be a sushi place somewhere nearby, right? Well, somehow we found the only block in Los Angeles without one. At that point, I would’ve settled for even a Yoshinoya, but all I could see around me were car repair shops and factories. ‘Ok’, I though, I would just have to dig in my heels and try to enjoy the experience.
Finally, the food came. I was shocked. I ordered tacos but there were no shatter-prone yellow shells. Instead, I found flour tortillas wrapped around delicious smelling grilled meat. I was then led to the topping bar, where before my eyes, lay salsas the color of the rainbow, alongside cilantro and onion. This time, my first bite was a colorful explosion of flavors with a spicy kick. And more important, thanks to the soft tortilla…no crumble! This experience left me a couple of questions. Why there’re two pieces of tortillas come as one taco? How will I find my way back to this taco stand my own?