Habanero Tacos

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https://www.facebook.com/Habanero-Tacos-636831153117512/timeline/
https://twitter.com/habanerotacos
Main Location: Minneapolis, Etc

Those who are somewhat familiar with my blog my notice a certain peculiarity to my archives, that being, except for a couple rare exceptions, I don’t really do reviews on Traditional Mexican Taco Trucks/Carts. Now the modern, bright, new-business, fusion/twisted, and other sort of taco-based trucks we see on our main downtown streets, sure. But as a general rule, I’ve made the decision to just ignore all the almost nameless, likely family-owned, no-frills and no-social-media-focus taco trucks that are so often seen in various parking lots, on the further outskirts of uptown and south Minneapolis, etc. You know the ones, the ‘taco trucks,’ those businesses that were likely the true precursor to our food truck industry in the US.

Note that this has nothing to do with any disdain or even disinterest towards these businesses; I absolutely adore taco trucks. They use proper masa tortillas, have a whole variety of usually delicious fillings, are NOT afraid to cook things like tongue or cheek or other offal (more people are coming to appreciate, but the rest of you are still pansies. Pansies I say!!), are often very cheap, and sometimes even offer a variety of options to eat with your desired filling; like going to Chipotle. There are reasons these kinds of businesses have succeeded for dozens of years.

But there are so many of them, parked who-knows-where half the time, usually with no online presence letting those unaware find them easily, and as much as I love the kind of truck… the fact is if you’ve been to one you’ve almost been to them all. The experience is rather identical; yes yes, there are little differences in flavor and quality between each, much like BBQ trucks, but it’s even less noticeable than that example, and I’m going to be happy either way. In my personal opinion, if I WERE to track down all the different taco trucks, I feel the only way to properly review them is between each other; or in other words, I’d have to start a whole separate blog, or blog page, devoted JUST to reviewing the aspects of the taco trucks themselves. And I don’t feel like doing that… yet. For now, it’s easier just to focus on the masses of every other kind, familiar and weird, that keep popping up in the Twin Cities.

So it was with much reluctance that I passed by Habanero Tacos at a farmer’s market some months ago, making the difficult decision to ignore it and save some money for other truck visits. The truck certainly fits into the same category as other taco trucks I’ve been to, so they were a no go. That said, of late I’ve taken strong notice of the fact that they’ve been parking in downtown Minneapolis quite a lot, they have a twitter and Facebook handle that gets updated, and are otherwise rather in the public eye just as strongly as some of our other food trucks. So I feel it only right that I give them my full respect and offer a complete review to add into the ranks on this blog for all the effort they’re clearly going through to get known. Plus, I like to think one can then use this as an overall idea on where taco trucks in general rank on the ‘food truck scale’ for each ranking category.

As for some details, the menu offers the chance to get Tacos, Burritos, Enchiladas, Alambres (meat sautéed with bacon, peppers, and onions; with melted cheese, I think it’s on rice or a big tortilla, basically an entrée), each with your choice of filling. One can pick from a list, slightly differing between item, including but not limited to: Al Pastor (Marinated Pork), Carnitas (Roast Pork), Carne Asada (Grilled Steak), Barbacoa (Shredded Beef), Pollo, Lengua (Beef Tongue), and Cabeza (Shredded Beef Head). One also has the chance to get a side of Elote (Mexican Street Corn, on the cob w/ lime, mayo, cheese, and spices) or Tortillas. Not to mention a full line-up of sodas, canned and Mexican bottles and guava juice (gotta love guava juice). That about sums it up, so let’s get down to it.

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Food: 9

                Can’t go to a taco truck without just getting the tacos; it’s a good way to try a couple fillings for cheap anyways. As expected, proper soft masa tortillas, double-stacked for each taco, garnished with onion, cilantro, and a section of lime for each taco. And yes there was a little thing of hot sauce, which I completely forgot to try on top of the tacos cuz they were SO GOOD; I love a proper taco from these kinds of trucks! But I did sneak a taste of the sauce on its own; has a kick, with some of those dried whole spicy chile flavors and some development start to finish.

Decided to go for the Al Pastor, ‘Marinated Pork,’ and the Cabeza, ‘Beef Head,’ for this trip. Both tasted great on their own terms, wrapped in their pillowy tortilla folds and with spikes of herby aromatics and bright crunchy onion. The pork’s marinade shone the most, with that distinctly unique tomato-chile-based (I think, maybe it’s a red mole or similar) sauce providing the most distinction; though on their own, the pork meat WAS a bit dry, luckily everything else balances it out enough to not really impact you. Oh but the head, fall apart tender and rich and juicy… well, not really juicy, in fact almost ‘slimy,’ but in a good way, like certain special Japanese noodle dishes. Bit of that fatty/collagen-y aspects from wherever they took that meat around the cow’s skull. And for those already trying to use excuses to be disgusted, shut up; it’s just like roast beef, amazing and super flavorful roast beef which is perfect like this. I only wish they had even MORE alternative cuts, like chicharrons, pig feet, brains, etc; but oh well.

They might deserve an even higher score, but I feel I’d need to try some other items for confirmation first; which also means it could just as well truly be deserving of lower, even if sticking with the fillings one knows are good. So as always, take these with a grain of salt; especially since I really just like this a general idea for all taco trucks anyways.

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Holdability: 9

                 Tacos are classic street food for a reason, they’re made to be able to pick up with one hand; and that classic double-tortilla design, as I’ve always said, is just so good. Can use it for extra support so none of the fillings fall out, or just use one tortilla first, let as much of that meat fall out as you can, and the leftovers turn into a second taco! Unless you only get one, which isn’t unlikely, one still needs two hands for basket holding. But there ARE options; yet another benefit to the classic taco truck; if one desires portability, the singular Burrito comes into play, not to mention the classic one-handed snack of Mexican Corn.
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Price: 10

                  $2.50 for each Taco, $8 for a Burrito, $7 for Enchiladas, $10.50 or $12 for the bigger entrée that is the Alambres, and $3 to get one of those classic Elote, this place has RANGE to fit exactly what you’re looking for. Whether one’s spending more on a big lunch, looking for a filling but more cost-effective option, or just wants to part with a few bucks for a soul-satisfying snack, or just to sample, these kinds of menus have it all. Yet another notable proof of evidence towards the taco truck’s success in engraining itself as THE classic American street food/food truck operation.

Speed: 8.5

I imagine it technically depends on the item, but most of the proteins/fillings are pre-cooked, may get a TOUCH of griddle time at the most, so they only need the filling time and come out quick. Alambres and Enchiladas will get more attention to cook everything together, I expect average wait on those, faster turn-out on others; they get those tacos out to you quickly! Just like any good street food stand.

The TOE: 9

                  My initial reaction when first seeing the truck a while ago, considering its plain-ish look, wasn’t all that inspiring; as evidenced by the delay in actually ordering from them. But then again, I was judging whether it qualified as one of the ‘modern’ food trucks which I mainly focus on. Truly, this IS a Mexican Food Truck, and it feels like it when you’re there and ordering from it. It seems to measure up just about as much as the others; perhaps there’s been some attempts towards a more ‘attractive’ design pulls it a bit more away from that rather traditional, operating-in-the-parking-lot-down-the-street feel that sort of comes to mind with these, but it’s not so huge. Plus I admit it that feeling in myself may be skewed simply because they’ve been doing a lot of business in downtown with the other trucks.

Tally: 45.5/50

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Final Thoughts

Gotta love a good Carne Asada, and if you can find ANY part of yourself to try it, get the Lengua or Cabeza, they’re always so good in tacos. Besides those, I’d say you’re certainly safe with anything else Shredded or Grilled/Charbroiled, then it’s just figuring out what kind of edible packaging you want it in! That variability, versatility, is what makes these trucks perfect for any need: on a budget, grabbing a snack between other things, sampling multiple things, getting a full meal, looking to eat there or move to another location, etc. Chances are you’ll find SOMETHING that fits your needs here, so long as you don’t hate Mexican cuisine (you monster). And definitely give the Elote a chance if you still have yet to try one; it can be a quick, cheap, and satisfying grab-and-go treat that’s worth the minimal spending risk, or can add it onto another order as a ‘side’ of sorts.

At the end of the day, Habanero Tacos delivers their food, for the most part, in the same manner as what we expect to come from these glorious vehicles. I hope you’ve had the chance to experience it or one of the many other classic taco vendors in the cities, or that you do so soon.

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The Mysteries in the Taco

                Every life, every aspect, every section and career of our world is filled with its own mysteries, its own urban legends, myths, curiosities, hand-down stories, etc. Legendary figures, unexplained circumstances, the mysterious popping up of something awesome, I’m sure we’ve all heard of these things at one point or another, and probably for the oddest of things at times.

                In fact, there’s a certain little tale I’ve come across, some of you may have heard it; the legend of a certain K-Mart parking lot, occupied every day by the same two Mexican Taco Trucks. They station themselves at either end of the asphalt battleground, each Truck a mirror reflection in style and food yet completely opposite in appearance. One is supposedly simple and old-fashioned, while the other stands bright and “modern” by comparison.

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                What is this “K-Mart” of which they speak, and where is it? Do these trucks really exist? What compelled them to park there like this?

                The answers are: basically a Red Walmart, Uptown near Nicolette and Lake, Yes, and that’s still the thing of Myths. Theories and questions abound for these two side-by-side servers of the masa-wrapped packages. Are they two brothers acting out a life-long struggle to prove who’s better, a single owner looking to trick the masses while increasing profit, an old-fashioned truck coming in to prove its dominance over the more modern trends (or the other way around?!)??!! Maybe they started as one truck, only to have fired an angry employee for his radical views in the evolution of Mexican culinary scene, and who in revenge started his OWN Truck which he then parked across the lot, facing down his previous employers every day (this theory courtesy of a friend of mine).

                Or maybe they’re just two business owners who liked setting up in this K-Mart lot… either way.

                Of course I was lucky enough to spot this K-Mart on one of my drives in the Uptown area, and got the chance to confirm these mystery taco trucks for myself soon after. But to my surprise and luck, I did not find two trucks in the lot waiting for orders; I found THREE!! Though I think this might be new, considering one of them is a Food Truck Regular out on certain streets, while the other two are supposedly only know by those visiting the lot…

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                Whether it’s cashing in on rumors started by the other two, filling in for another, or just decided to wander in, Taco Taxi has inserted one of their bigger mobile operations in one of the corners. Anyone else sorta reminded of Tacqueria Hacienda’s truck but just different colors? I swear when I saw these guys I started worrying they went out of business and got their Truck bought…

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                Still has the giant bin of various Mexican Sodas.

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                For only $1.50 each, you can buy small masa tacos filled with whatever meat ya want. They will ask if you want onions and cilantro; say yes, always say yes, it is not a real taco without it. I myself finally got to get my Cheek Meat (Cabeza)!

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                Across the asphalt stood Taqueria el Primo, the old-fashioned looking white taco truck with a Sombrero-wearing Food Mascot on the side.

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                As with a PROPER Mexican Truck, they’re a lot more adventurous with (possible) meat selection; they of course have Asada and Carnitas and whatever, but one can also come in at times to find the street-aware Beef Tongue, Cheek, BRAINS, and something called “Buche.”

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                Of course these aren’t always here, as I found out; they had a little list on paper near the window listing the options that day, and what had run out. Happily for me, they still had Buche, so I ordered one.

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                For $2, you get a bigger taco than Taxi across the street, as well as the ability to add different hot sauces to your own pleasure from squeeze bottles (they just handed a little cup of one over at Taxi). As for Buche, they note it as “Pork Maw” on here, though research has found this term a bit confused. The consent is that it’s actually stomach, so basically the pork version of Tripe, though one thing said esophagus, I’m sure some people call parts of the mouth buche, so it depends… but I’m pretty sure what I ate was stomach.

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                With my hunger for Mexican-style Offal Meat just growing, I headed to the 3rd and final truck, El Chilo, which I had seen right next to Primo on a previous day.

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                I was very happy to see a menu just-as-filled with familiar and not-so-much items to choose from. Especially since I saw my chance to try S/Cesos (Beef Brains).

                Apparently, though, they weren’t actually open. They’re truck was outside, with all the windows and serving areas open, but they were just cleaning. I was a bit frustrated, too, as I attempted to ask a guy if they were serving and if I could have a taco, with his response seeming quite positive and “sure.” And then he just went back to cleaning…

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                So my zombie-like craving for brains went un-requited, and still has since then. For some reason, despite a couple other return visits, Chilo was nowhere to be found, though Taxi was still in the same place. This leads me to wonder, is Taco Taxi simply filling in on the days Chilo isn’t available, have they been gone for long or just on days I visited, has Chilo been booted out of their lot by the growing competition!?

                Well, it’s only fitting that more mysteries abound from the MN Food Truck Scene’s own little urban legend. Hopefully one day I shall return to find the big orange behemoth out so I can figure out their price and what brains actually taste like. I shall report when I do.

                For those who haven’t sought out this myth yet, I definitely urge you to do; and for those who have, any idea what’s up with Chilo? But whatever one’s situation, we still have other mysteries and legends to explore in the rest of our everyday lives. While I go and try to figure out some more, I say Good Luck and Good Eating to you all.

SFC: Pork Ends and Certain Techniques

              There are so many things I’ve come to love about the world of Street Foods, Truck-based or not. But easily one of my, if not THE, favorite point comes within the use, exploration, discovery, display, and whatever other words can describe the noted exhibition of those ingredients rarely seen in our everyday American culture. I am of course talking about such thing as Offal (organs, tongue, feet, etc), Insects, and other random products which, so thankfully, have found an increase trend in the National Restaurant scene. Though of course it’s true surgance came through the streets, both international and at home, especially in the all-familiar Beef Tongue Taco (which you can find at Chef Shack and other taco trucks).

                I love being able to play around with these whenever I can get my hands on them, and lucky for me I’ve found the local Cub and other chain stores have started stocking things like Beef Tongue, Liver, Marrow Bones, Tripe, and other random items in the frozen section. Just this week, I decided to stop by once again, and happened to pick up something I hadn’t had the chance to work with yet, despite a burning interest at seeing its use in a certain episode of Triple D.

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                Oh yeah, Pig’s Feet baby. It may be split as opposed to the nice whole pieces of them, but they still feety. Memories of those weird appendages hanging suspended in a pickling jar aside, I still remember the scene of these guys coming out, fall-apart tender from a hot broth, with a spiky white-haired host describing them as “80% Fat.” And boy, was he right about that, but I’ll get to that later…

                So, what to do with this mound of bone, fat and skin? My first time working with it, having no outside knowledge concerning other ways to manipulate the pork paws (besides “pickling”… ugh), best to stick with the general Go-To for all Offal meats: Braising.

                For those who need a quick refresher course on the concept, braising is simply the employment of Two different cooking styles, most commonly a Quick, Hot Sear to the product followed by a Long, Slow Poaching (flavorful liquid preferred); in China they actually employ a reversal of this, boiling some meats for a while before finishing in a wok!

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                If following along, make sure to get a nice, wide-bottomed pan up to high heat; I just use a Dutch oven so I can do both cookings (though you can sear in one pan and poach in another if preferred). The oil really should be SMOKING when poured in; dump in the meat, leave for about a minute or more to get that hard color (w/out burning) and turn to get all sides.

                Going from here all depends on what one wants to cook it in, and what one has; the only thing I suggest is not doing just water. Since I sadly didn’t have any stock or broth around, I looked to add flavor in other ways. Luckily I had some tomato paste leftover in the fridge, so I employed a classic technique learned through school. Tossed it into the hot oil, along with some whole garlic cloves, actually letting it sorta caramelize/sear/whatever for about a minute (stirring).

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                By now, the bottom of the pan has a little bit of crusty bits from the pork, tomato paste, and who knows what else stuck to it. This we call “Fond,” and it’s the delight of all broths, stews, etc; we WANT this (so long as it’s not all black and burnt), so before adding whatever base liquid, we need to deglaze that pan. As such, I added the rest of a bottle of red wine (can also just use water) to boil and dissolve the concentrated flavors, scraping the bottom with a non-metal utensil to get it all off.

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                Once done, I filled it to the top with water (wish I had stock… sigh) and added in some stalks of celery and carrots to help provide that aromatic background the broth would have had, along with herb stalks (had some cilantro handy) and a little something else.

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                Yeah, pre-packaged spice mix. Don’t normally use things like it, but the folks used this dressing in a tasty dish a while back, we had some left, and again I needed something to fill in for depth and complexity. Remember this, following a set recipe is all well and good, but we don’t always have the needed materials on hand; that doesn’t mean we have to drive all the way to the store to buy something JUST for a one-time use. Learning to use random things we have in place of what we don’t not only allows us flexibility in cooking, but a great way to use up leftovers!

                All that’s left to cook it fully is to cover and simmer for at least 2-3 hours. Once done you’ll have pieces of pork feet that’ll pull right from their bones with just a tug of the fork.

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                While this is cooking, there IS something that needs contemplation; a sauce. Even with its flavor absorption and moist texture, I’ve found many braised meat meals just aren’t complete without some sort of sauce to raise them up, preferably one made with the same cooking liquid. My personal favorite thing to do is simply turn it into a gravy, or just reduce the liquid down until saucy, though not all cooking broths will do this properly (depends on what’s in their).

                Goin’ with the gravy, then, we start, of course, with a Roux: a 50-50 (ish) mix of butter, melted in a pan, and flour, added to it. A very classic ingredient to many French sauces, this allows a sauce to actually thicken while also providing a little flavor if handled right, depending on how long it’s cooked after combining the two ingredients. It’s said that classic French “Roux Masters” can identify 15 (or more) different stages of roux as well as know each of their proper uses. The rest of us mortals, on the other hand, happen to stick with 3: Blanc (white), Blonde(… blonde), and Brun (Brown).

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                Cooked very briefly, the little paste (pictured) will actually lighten a bit in color, which is blanc; left to start darkening a bit, without actually browning, and it has reached the blonde stage. These are well known for their use in cream-based (blanc) and light-stock or other liquid based gravies. I, on the other hand, am going for a darker gravy, so I cooked it even further, to a nutty-smelling, coppery brown color. After which I added some of the liquid from the braise (after it had enough flavor from reducing and the meat) until it was thin, whisking constantly until it boiled to a good, sauce-like consistency. (on a personal note, I also decided to add a bit of brown sugar and bbq sauce to adjust my flavors)

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                I know I didn’t really say TOO much to explain the idea of roux and its use, but all you need to know is this; the more/darker you cook a roux, the more flavor it provides, but inversely the less it’ll actually thicken. And Traditionally, one tries to match the color of the roux with the color of the sauce used.

                My sauce ready and on the side, I can return to the pork, gingerly separating it from the rest of the hot liquid.

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                With all the little knuckles and joints and whatever, takes a bit of time to remove the hot flesh from the bones.

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                And now, one can make the choice to eat them in these big, rich chunks, or chop them up fine to use in your own little street food mementos. I of course chose the latter (though I did munch on some bigger pieces beforehand…).

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                Once prepared, its uses are various, whether it be serving over a warm polenta with roasted tomatoes and sauce…

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                Or mixing with the gravy itself, as such:

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                And placing in a little taco like so. Maybe a little pico de gallo and slaw, or in my case some leftover cooked kale, shaved baby fennel, and cilantro.

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                Oh, and how does it taste? If you’ve ever had chicken’s feet, it’ll provide you with an idea, only even more of that tender Fatty, Cartilage-y type substance, a little bit of meat here and there, mmmmm. It may not sound good to some people, but this is tasty stuff, especially paired with the right things (was great with that polenta). Lot of that good meaty “gelatin” inside; it’s actually sorta funny, the leftover in the fridge have actually turned back into a sort of jelly themselves.

                Well, a little long for a post about just braising pig’s feet, but any good talk of Offal needs to be. And whether it be at home, restaurant, or Truck, cooking Offal or just a tough piece of shoulder, everything here works. Hopefully you were able to find at least some enjoyment in this discussion of the off-used products, I know I did.

                Until my next long-winded dialog, Good Luck and Good Eating to all!