Who would have expected New Haven, Connecticut to be home to one of the most exciting developing Mexican taco truck scenes we’ve ever seen? Occupying a stretch of Long Wharf Drive, which runs parallel to Interstate 95, past New Haven’s massive Brutalist-style concrete architecture, a few gas stations, and a fairly newly-minted Ikea, hardcore Mexican taco trucks have been a part of the scenery there as far back as I can remember. When we moved away from the area in 2006, there would regularly be a truck or two selling dollar tacos. Now, the weekends can see that number spike to as many as ten trucks, all selling grilled and braised meats, folded into corn tortillas. Best of all? They start lining up early in the morning, making 8:00 AM taquitos de lengua a distinct (and delicious) possibility.
These tacos remind me more of Mexico than any other food we’ve had since returning to the States. A little meat, a little onion, a little cilantro, and a little heat are all you need, piled onto tiny, cheap tacos that can be polished off in two bites. I wanted to make them at home, complete with a thin, spicy red taqueria-style salsa that would bring the burn to the slow-simmered meat. And when it came to meat, there could only be one choice, one perfect example of Mexican cooking’s ability to turn scraps into gold. Braised cow’s tongue.
The good people at L & P Bisson and Sons Meat Market in Topsham, Maine hooked me up with a frozen cow’s tongue, a bargain at around seven bucks for three pounds of meat. I had never prepared tongue, and quite frankly, the idea gave me the heebiejeebies. Cooking tongue is challenging, both mentally and physically. There’s a process of detoxifying. There’s boiling. There’s an unmistakable smell. There’s a step where you have to peel the outer layer of bubbled, bumpy skin off of the inner layer of muscle. Then, there’s the process of chopping up a huge slab of meat that is, quite unmistakably, a giant tongue. I’ve enjoyed taquitos de lengua many times, but I had a real mental block about preparing it, myself. That squeamishness made it seem an important project to tackle; I didn’t like the idea that there was a food that I liked to eat, but felt uncomfortable preparing. After a few days mentally preparing myself on the Internet for what was to come, I felt ready.
Listen, I’m not going to bullshit you, here. Preparing cow’s tongue for tacos is a profoundly unpleasant process. Get through it, though, and your reward is a supple, tender, meat, with a texture quite unlike any other part of the animal. Once it’s finely chopped up (and maybe after you’ve divorced yourself from the process for a day), it’s easy to forget what it actually is, and becomes as tasty a part of the animal as any other. Topped with a few chopped onions, a handful of cilantro, and a squeeze of lime, on some homemade corn tortillas? It’s hard to imagine a better, less expensive, more traditional taco.
Taquitos de Lengua
- 1 beef tongue (about three pounds)
- 2 large onions
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- Corn tortillas
- White onion, chopped
- Cilantro, chopped
- Fresh lime wedges
- Salsa Roja (recipe follows)
Fill a large stock pot with water, and bring to a boil. Add tongue, and boil for five minutes. Remove tongue using tongs, and set aside. Discard water, and thoroughly wash the pot (and give the tongue a rinse, while you’re at it) to remove any impurities or particularly nasty bits.
Fill the stock pot with water again. Add the tongue, onions, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, salt, cumin, and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for three hours.
Remove the tongue from the cooking liquid, and let cool slightly until just cool enough to handle. Letting the tongue sit too long makes it harder to peel, so don’t let it cool completely. You’ll see an outer layer of white skin, which may have some air pockets underneath. Using your fingers and a paring knife as needed, remove this outer layer of skin and discard. You may also remove the large patch of meat that connected the tongue to the bottom of the cow’s mouth, if you don’t like its looks.
Finely chop meat, until it no longer looks like a tongue. You can serve the meat as-is, or quickly crisp it in a pan if you don’t like the texture. Serve with corn tortillas, chopped onion, cilantro, fresh lime, and salsa roja.
Salsa Roja: Spicy Red Chile-Tomatillo Salsa
- 1/4 ounce hot dried chiles (use whatever chiles you have; I used 1 dried chipotle, 1 dried ancho, and about half a dozen dried japonese peppers)
- 3 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 6 tomatillos
- 1 teaspoon salt
In an ungreased skillet over medium heat, toast the chiles, until aromatic with a few black marks, about one minute. Transfer to a bowl, and cover with very hot water. Soak to rehydrate, about 20-30 minutes.
In the same skillet, roast the garlic, tossing regularly, until soft and blacked in places, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool, then peel off skin.
Place the tomatillos on a baking sheet, and roast under the broiler until blackened, about five minutes. Turn tomatillos and roast other side for another five minutes.
Transfer tomatillos to the bowl of a food processor. Drain chiles, and add to food processor, along with garlic and salt. Puree, adding water as needed until salsa thins to desired consistency.