Tacos are some of the most festively social foods I know of. My friend Janice likes to take groups of friends on a culinary field trip to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens to dine al fresco, as they say, at the taco trucks at 74th Street, which she has always claimed have the best tacos in New York City. She lived in Mexico City for many years and is a true traditional Mexican cook, so I take her word in all such matters. (She also makes amazing tacos, most notably squid.)
Those Queens taco trucks rival the best taco stands I’ve been to in Mexico City and Guadalajara. The greasy, spicy chorizo tacos from the stand just outside the Cantina Tlaquepaque in D.F.’s Colonia Centro are addictive, but if you want variety, you can get just about anything else in a pair of warm tortillas, including eye, tongue, cochinita pibil, and carna asada, which sizzle in batches on a hot oily metal drum and are scooped into double tortillas and handed to you on a paper plate. You can stand at a little counter on the sidewalk, just like at the taco trucks, helping yourself to the pickled jalapenos, radishes, crema, cilantro, and chopped onion, or you can take your food into the cantina, sit at a table, order glasses of tequila with sangrita, and listen to the jukebox play loud Mexican pop while everyone in the place sings along.
The other afternoon here in Portland, Maine in the middle of this weirdly warm, weirdly sunny winter, I was grocery shopping in Hannaford’s with Brendan, roaming around with a cart and no particular list or plan, as usual. Magpie-like, I found myself reaching for glossy dark-green jalapenos, an orangey-gold mango, plush-red tomatoes, spring-green cilantro, neon limes, and a pepper that was the lurid, unreal red of cherry candy. It dawned on me that I was planning to make shrimp tacos with mango-avocado salsa.
At home, I diced 2 tomatoes, a red onion, 3 jalapenos, 4 garlic cloves, a ripe mango, a ripe avocado, and a red pepper, then added some salt and black pepper and an entire bunch of minced cilantro. I squeezed 2 juicy limes over it all and stirred and let it sit. Then, after consulting Janice, who recommended garlic and red pepper flakes, I minced a whole head of garlic and put it into a glass bowl with lots of fresh lime juice, lots of red pepper flakes, and another entire bunch of minced cilantro. While a pound of large raw peeled shrimp marinated in this, I simmered two well-rinsed cans of black beans with garlic, jalapeno, red onion, and chopped tomatoes, cumin, bay leaves, oregano, and paprika, and just enough vegetable broth to bind it all. Then I ran the shrimp under the broiler until they were pink and cooked through. We scooped them into warm corn tortillas with chopped iceberg lettuce and the mango salsa and devoured them with a side of black beans.
Last night, to use up the leftover tortillas, salsa, and beans, and inspired by my friend Rosie’s recipe, I bought a pound of fresh local haddock, 2 big filets, and marinated them in the adobo sauce from a can of chipotles and then dredged them in cornmeal. I panfried them till they were just cooked through. Rosie likes to flash-pickle jalapenos and radishes and whizz more adobo in the blender with crema for a sauce, but even without these accoutrements, the tacos were fantastic. We ate every scrap of everything on blue plastic plates in the still-unfinished house, sitting on mismatched old chairs at a small table by the fireplace in the box-filled living room. We drank red wine out of some small blue-patterned mugs I bought years ago in the covered market in Mexico City.
Taco-Stand Chicken Tacos
This is one of my few bona-fide published recipes. It appeared in a collection of various writers’ favorite recipes called Table of Contents. It’s adapted from a recipe I found online; I made it for a guy who was coming over to interview me about my novel, Trouble, which takes place partially in Mexico City, so I figured I should serve a Mexican lunch. He came in, saw the table set with plates and wine and napkins, glanced at the pot of stewing chicken, and announced that he had done some online research and had learned that I like to cook for my interviewers. “I think it’s a gimmick,” he said, “and I’m not impressed.” I laughed, said nothing, and served him these tacos. After hoovering up five or six of them with all the trimmings, he took it back in no uncertain terms.
For the filling
3 pounds bone-in chicken breasts (3-4 breasts)
2 jalapeño chiles
2 cups finely chopped tomato (fresh or canned)
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
18 corn tortillas
For the garnish
Minced red onion
Chopped cilantro leaves
Green and red salsas
Pickled jalapeño chiles
Thinly sliced radishes, fresh or pickled
To make the filling: Place the chicken breasts in a large pot and cover with at least 1½ inches of water. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes. Use a large metal spoon to occasionally skim the scum that rises to the surface. Remove chicken and reserve 1½ cups of chicken broth. When chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the chicken into bite-size pieces, discarding the skin and bones. You should have about 5 cups of shredded chicken.
If you have a gas range, roast the chiles over an open flame until tender and blackened on all sides. If you have an electric range, place the chiles on a broiling tray covered with foil and broil, turning occasionally, until skin is blackened and blistered on all sides. Place chiles in a small bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove stems and peel off blackened skin.
Place reserved broth, tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro, chiles, salt, and pepper in a blender and puree for 1-3 minutes (depending on the efficiency of your blender.)
Place shredded chicken and puréed sauce in a skillet or saucepan and simmer for 45 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally.
Preheat oven to 300°F. Warm the tortillas: Place tortillas on two baking sheets (they can overlap slightly) and bake until tortillas are soft and pliable, about 4 minutes.
To assemble the tacos: Place a few tablespoons of chicken mixture into a warm corn tortilla, and garnish with avocado, red onion, cilantro, green and red salsas, sour cream, lime wedges, pickled jalapeños, and radishes.