Every genuinely good restaurant is good in the same way. Behind the scenes bustles a detail-obsessed, outcome-oriented person, dogmatic in his or her belief in a right way and a wrong way. At Los Comales, the superlative taqueria at 2103 N. Roxboro St., in Durham, Juana Moncada Angel is this type of person.
"She wanted to work in a place where she could do what she loves and do everything with discipline and effort," translates her teenage son Gustavo, explaining the decision to open the restaurant in 2006. "She wanted the chance to try her best."
Angel and her husband, Braulio, own the restaurant—their first. She manages the kitchen and does much of the cooking. The fare is standard (tacos, tortas, gorditas, pupusas), but the quality is stellar. An unpresuming plate of tacos pops with bright, exact flavors, all set against the deep, loamy savor of masa.
"She got her recipes from everyone—from her grandma and her mom, from TV and from cookbooks," says Gustavo. "Ever since she was little she has loved the kitchen."
Los Comales' taco menu is a bestiary of odd bits. There is cachete (beef cheek), lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (beef head), birria (goat), buche (pig esophagus) and chicharrón (pig skin), as well as less alarming standards like barbacoa (braised lamb), chorizo (sausage) and carne asada (steak). The splendid tacos al pastor ("shepherd-style tacos") do full justice to one of the classic street foods of Mexico. At $1.50 per taco, there is no better bargain in the Triangle, with all due respect to the 69-cent raisin-walnut rolls at Weaver Street Market and the $1.95 brezel stick with ham and cheese at Guglhupf.
As prepared on the streets of Mexico, tacos al pastor belong to the family of rotisserie-grilled meats that includes Lebanese shawarma, Turkish doner kebabs and Greek gyros. Chili- and pineapple-marinated pork steaks are layered tightly on a spit, forming a massive beehive called a trompo (spinning top). The pork comes to a fatty sizzle one side at a time, and the crispy outer edges are shaved directly onto tortillas, often accompanied by a slice of charred pineapple.
Angel says she had wanted to prepare her tacos al pastor in the traditional manner, but local health inspectors look dimly on cutting from a trompo with a center that's still raw. Bowing to the local squeamishness, Angel grills her pork steaks on a griddle, dices the steaks into smallish cubes, adds pineapple chunks and juices and returns the piquant hash to the griddle for a final caramelization.
As orders stream in, Angel and her sous chefs dollop the pork onto pairs of seconds-old, handmade tortillas. Hastily the customer dresses the tacos with raw onion, radish, cilantro, lime and an array of vibrant salsas, both red and green. The finished plate is an extravaganza of color, flavor and texture, as fine in its way as anything primped on china and drizzled with truffle oil.
Tacos al Pastor
15 dried guajillo chilies
10 garlic cloves, peeled
1 eight-ounce can of pineapple chunks, juice
8 bay leaves
3 tablespoons paprika (not spicy)
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1 teaspoon dried whole-leaf oregano
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup white vinegar
4 cups boiling water (to hydrate the chilies)
4 pounds pork cut from a 6-pound Boston butt
1 20-ounce can of pineapple chunks with juice
Salt to taste
12 ounces masa de harina (instant corn masa flour), preferably Maseca brand
2 1/3 cups water (possibly a little more) at room temperature
Place the chilies in a large bowl and cover with the boiling water. Let soften for 20 minutes. Discard the stems and the cooled chili water. Place the chilies and the next 12 ingredients, garlic through vinegar, in a blender and purée to the consistency of ketchup. Force through a mesh strainer and discard pulp. Cut the pork into steaks roughly 3/4-inch thick. Marinate the meat for 8 to 24 hours. Oil a stainless steel frying pan or griddle (see notes). Grill the meat slices until slightly charred and caramelized. Let cool. Chop into half-inch cubes. Deglaze the pan with some of the pineapple juice. Add the chopped pork and the remaining pineapple and juice. The juice will thicken into syrup. Toss the meat in the syrup. As the syrup evaporates, the meat will begin to caramelize and char again. Adjust salt as necessary.
In a large bowl, mix the masa and 2 1/3 cups water. Work the dough with bare hands until the water is fully incorporated. The dough should be maximally moist without being unmanageable. Add small quantities of water as needed. Line a tortilla press with plastic (see notes).
Pinch off a piece of dough and roll it into a ball (slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball). Place between the plastic and flatten. Peel the plastic from the top of the tortilla. Flip the tortilla onto the palm of the hand and peel the plastic from the bottom.
Flip the tortilla onto a hot stainless steel frying pan or griddle and cook for two minutes, or until the tortilla has puffed and begun to char. Wrap the cooked tortillas in a clean kitchen towel to stay warm and moist. The tortillas will steam slightly in the towel, bringing them to final perfection. Yields about 25 tacos.
All ingredients can be purchased at Tienda y Carnicera La Superior, 3325 N. Roxboro St., Durham.
A 6-pound Boston butt will yield the necessary 4 pounds of raw pork, leaving you a nice, fleshy soup bone. Cut the most egregious pockets of fat if you wish, but do not sacrifice your tacos on the altar of functioning arteries. Overly lean meat will taste dry.
Angel grills the pork steaks on a large steel griddle. At home, the steaks are best cooked in a stainless steel (not nonstick) or cast-iron frying pan. Alternately, the steaks may be gas- or charcoal-grilled, though this approach may dry the meat. Producing a tender tortilla is a feat of muscle memory and fine motor skills to daunt a neurosurgeon. Tenderness depends on wet dough, but properly hydrated tortillas are difficult to manage. Transferring them from the tortilla press to the frying pan or griddle is an operation requiring utmost lightness of touch. The key is to line the tortilla press with a rectangle (or two squares) cut from a supermarket checkout bag. The pressed tortillas release from this variety of plastic relatively easily, while they stick maddeningly to everything else, including the otherwise miraculous Reynolds parchment paper.
Tortillas are best grilled on a dry steel surface. Nonstick surfaces produce less fragrant and toothsome tortillas. I recommend cooking tortillas on a nonoiled surface for the initial grilling and a lightly oiled surface to reheat.
Stick to the classic garnishes mentioned in the story. Do not insult your tacos al pastor with cheddar cheese or supermarket-bought salsa.