Well, another Mexican vacation is behind me and another reassurance that my heart and soul belong south of the border is under my belt.
Until this trip, all of my adult time in Mexico had been spent Guadalajara and south – I’ve experienced Jalisco, Mexico City, Michoacan, Morelos, Oaxaca, Chiapas. As a child, I grew up in southern California though, so I saw Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada. I don’t remember too much of it, except for a few very specific memories: the best beans I’ve ever had (still to this day), half-way finished cinder block housing (I assume taken over for hotels, resorts and timeshares at this point), and even then knowing that there was something special about that place….
A few years beyond a 12 year old now, southern Mexico has been “real Mexico” to me – whatever that means. You hear it everywhere, but something about it seems true. Many parts of Baja cater to the American tourist; most everyone speaks English and don’t have the slightest expectation of you even giving Spanish a try, it’s easier to find a restaurant dedicated to fried chicken than to tacos, and most things are charged in US Dollars. That being said – Baja Sur is still wonderful. Cabo San Lucas I could take or leave, but the surrounding area on the coast and inland is filled with exactly what the bumper stickers say: “No Dias Malas” (no bad days) - bare, sandy feet all day, distractions from driving because you see a whale off the coast, a general relaxed attitude of “whatever, it’s fine” and once you make your way along the highway out of the tourist towns – all the tacos you and me are looking for.
What do you want? Extremely fresh shrimp tacos with pico de gallo?
Some of those good ole fashioned fish tacos with salsa and crema?
Whatever taco you desire, it’s there, fresh and most delicious! Of course, ceviche is everywhere and it’s heavenly. Some places think it’s fancy for the gringos, and will charge you an arm and a leg – but just wait it out and you’ll find a great place like I did that will give you a ceviche tostada for 20 pesos (that’s less than $2USD).
And with more hot sauce than will fit in the frame of an instagram photo, to boot.
In other taco news around the southern coast, there’s also machaca:
Machaca is a traditional regional dish of northern Mexico and Baja. I thought it was only beef – and I bet all of you did, too. But it’s not! In and around the coast of Baja Sur (both west and east sides) there is Machaca de Pescado (usually Tilapia) or even Machaca de Rey (yep – manta ray!). Machaca de Marlin is most common and sooo good. It’s Marlin that has been dried, pulled, and then rehydrated and really lightly smoked. Oh and those tacos are out of control.
(I like a lot of toppings….) (The little red bits you see underneath there is the machaca.)
Of course, Baja is still Mexico, so don’t forget those non-seafood more traditional tacos.
Baja Sur’s favorite breakfast (and mine now, too) is birria tacos. These corn tortillas were dipped in the birria juice first, then grilled on a greasy, steaming, side of the road flat top. Great flavor, piled high with hot sauce at 10 in the morning on the way to the beach. Try to beat that. I bet you can’t.
Or, topped with cabbage, a mix of cilantro and onion and a spicy salsa verde. Don’t forget the jamaica juice!
Alas, sadly (and against my will), I eventually had to come home. Upon my return to the sun and sand deprived bay area, I still couldn’t get enough tacos and so decided to do a little taco party of my own. I’ve lived in or near latin neighborhoods for a long time, so I see the masa in markets all the time and have always wanted to make my own tortillas.
Luckily it’s also crab season here in San Francisco – so tortillas, fresh crab…. I think you know where this is going….
It’s easier than it seems, but making tacos does necessitate some attention to nuances.
For first (and I suspect – 2nd, 3rd and probably 6th, 7th and 8th) time tortilla makers, get the pre-made masa – that’s the masa pre-mixed with water and a bit of lime. Depending on where you go, sometimes lard. The lard does help to hold it together, but that’s more essential for tamales. For tortillas – just get the masa (usually in a plastic bag) who’s ingredients are: masa, water, lime. That’s it.
You must have a tortilla press, too. Some instructions I’ve read have said you can do it with a rolling pin – and more power to you if you wanna try – but unless you’re an old mexican grandma with 40 years of tortilla making experience, I wouldn’t do it. And even then, they don’t use rolling pins. It was hard enough to get it going with pre-made masa and a tortilla press.
With pre-mixed masa, a tortilla press and a nice, hot, lightly oiled skillet (preferably cast iron) you’re as set as you’re gonna be to make some great tortillas.
So get the rest of your basics together and get pressing:
- If you don’t have a tortilla warmer, set your oven on the lowest temperature (usually 250) and you can keep them warm in there, or wrap them in a fairly thick kitchen towel.
- Make sure you have a few pieces of wax paper (or plastic grocery bags will do) pre-cut to coat both sides of the tortilla press (absolutely essential!)
- Start with a small ball of masa, about 3/4 the size of a ping pong ball, roll it between your palms like play-dough, stick it the middle of the tortilla press, and squish away. Open up the tortilla press and here’s your tortilla:
- After pressing the masa, get them in the hot skillet as soon as possible; keep them warm after grilled and they should be ready to go.
- Re-heat in the skillet or oven when ready, if needed.
*If it starts getting sticky and the tortillas start tearing after a while, try coating your hands in just a little bit of olive oil, or dusting them with coarse cornmeal before rolling them and before taking them off the tortilla press.
*Pressing the tortillas twice can help them from being doughy inside. It depends on the size of your tortillas and the wetness of your masa.
But you can’t have just tacos without salsa, can you?
- Oranges, peeled with no pith, seeded and diced (Cara Cara, Satsuma, Mandarin – the sweeter the better, and a mix is fun)
- English cucumber finely diced (or, substitue regular, peeled)
- 1 habanero pepper, seeded and very very finely minced
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and very very finely minced
- zest of 1 lime
- heavy handed sprinkle of coarse sea salt
- (feel free to add a small splash of tequila right to the salsa, if you like – try it on a spon first to see….it’s quite tasty)
Start the party with the salsa served on a chip and a shot of tequila beside it! Then follow up as taco toppings.
Another great taco topping, inspired by an almost ubiquitous spicy cream salsa Baja uses for many of its seafood tacos seen here:
Chipotle Cream Salsa
- sour cream
- a couple canned chipotles in adobo, seeded
- half a lime
- splash of olive oil
- coarse sea salt, to taste
- combine in food processor
- glop lovingly on tacos
*you have to do this one a little to taste, because the chipotle can be very flavorful, but can also be craaazy hot, so it depends on your spice tolerance; it’s also essential that you seed the peppers out of the can. Adding more sour cream/crema will help to cool it if it’s too hot.
And, of course, enjoy!