The Instinct, Part I


Some of the best Mexican food I've ever had was in the parking lot of a dive called Disco Taco in New Mexico, not far from a missile testing site. I remember hoping, while scarfing down sauced-up tortillas, that the white stuff covering the windows was dust, and not, say, atomic ash that had blown in off the desert.

close encounters

As an avid eater who has somehow graduated to the professional ranks, I sometimes wonder what is it, exactly, that leads me to good food. In this case, we were getting gas next door when I felt a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style pull towards the remarkably grimy Disco Taco. Seconds later, I looked down at my half-inhaled pork taco, glistening red with spice and juice, and thought, "…this means something."

I realized that urge I felt was my eater's instinct taking over. (I've also since realized that my eater's instinct is divorced from my survival instinct, and they don't really talk to each other anymore.)

But instincts are just complex series of subconscious rules. So, in an intermittent series, I will attempt to detail some of the rules that govern my instinct. I would encourage you to explore these rules for yourself, but I'll have to ask for clearance from Gourmet's lawyers before I do that.

Today's rule, then: THE GNARLIER THE TACO ESTABLISHMENT, THE BETTER THE TACO. It doesn't have to be so gnarly as to have potentially mutant varmints and Roswell-type aliens (Ok, so he's dead. But was the chorizo tasty?) sniffing around the chorizo, but I give preference to old, yellowing walls, decor left over from the early 70's, and particularly if it looks like no one's had the time to mop in a while.

I've followed this rule left and right, and as a general principle, it has never failed me. There are caveats, of course: there's little appealing about flies getting a taste of the food before you, and a rat-infested Taco Bell certainly doesn't count. I'm not talking about the taco as a defiance of death. I'm just saying that it's not the grunge you have, it's how your wear it.

Take tiny Tacolandia in Jackson Heights, NY, for instance, where I regularly and alarmingly find plastic cutting boards set up on the griddle—now that's style. That's making do. I was not shocked to find their tacos, essentially rich stews served on drowning tortillas, to be terrifyingly tasty. San Francisco's El Farolito (This guy doesn't get the place's charms.) has walls discolored from florescent lamps and compressboard booths that tell you that they've been hawking tacos there for a long time. A bite of the ridiculously tender carnitas shows you why they've survived. Sure, these places might have uninspiring health inspection scores. But neither of them have so much as a microwave, so at least they won't be going nuclear.

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