Monday, June 15, 2009
In May 2002, I went on a ten-day road trip down the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. We started our with a rental car in LA and drove a zigzagging route back and forth between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez from Tijuana to Loreto. (Ten days is not long enough, and one of these days I want to make it all the way to the tip in Cabo) For those ten days, I basically subsisted exclusively on tacos. And when I say tacos, I mean carne asada. I ate the occasional fish or shrimp taco, but the staple was four or five carne asadas and a few bottles of Pacifico, three times a day. This usually put me back around $5 a meal, as it was 0.50¢ a taco and a buck a beer. Yeah, life doesn’t get much better than that. In addition to the economic appeal, the tacos were fantastic. It didn’t matter where we were; the tacos were always good. The differences between one stall or cantina and another basically came down to the quality of the condiments. Certain places had a particularly good salsa, but on the whole I found the experience pretty consistent. When I say I ate only carne asada for ten days, I’m really not exaggerating. Yet, somehow, I didn’t get bored. In fact, one of the first things that I could think about when I landed back in Vancouver was carne asada, and where I could go to get it.
Seven disappointing years later, and I was still bloody well looking! There has been a secret carne asada curse on Vancouver that is inexplicable. Carne asada has to be relatively easy to make, considering a man with a broken hotdog cart in the middle of the bloody desert managed to whip some up! I’ve been to LA and San Diego, delicious tacos. Even in Seattle, it’s not that difficult to find a couple of decent tacos. Bellis Fair Shopping Mall’s food court even has passable carne asada. Go north of the 49th, and it’s over. It’s like every Mexican agreed to some secret pact never to let Canadians try real carne asada.
Real carne asada, by the way, is simply a thin steak, marinated, grilled and chopped up into little cube-like chunks. You throw these chunks on a small, preferably corn, tortilla, top it with lots of chopped onion and cilantro, squeeze a lime on it and add whatever salsa is available. It’s simple and delicious, yet, apparently incomprehensible to the Canadian Mexican Taquería. I must have tried close to twenty different places in the past seven years, and it’s always the same story: they can never get the beef right. It’s either tasteless strips of chewy fajita beef, ground beef, or heavily marinated stew meat that looks and tastes more like pulled pork. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that all of the tacos that I’ve tried have tasted terrible, some were quite tasty, but they’re not carne asada. They’re differently prepared beef stuck in a corn tortilla.
Up until last week, I had pretty much given up trying to find the authentic street style tacos of my dreams, and was resigned to binge myself on the infrequent opportunities I get to go to Southern California and Mexico. When my sister suggested that we try Don Guacamole’s on Robson, I didn’t get my hopes up.
Don Guacamole’s has taken over the space that used to be a Korean Restaurant called Spice Alley. The best kimchi fried rice in town is gone, and so is the odd décor and hardcore Korean rap music that used to accompany your meals. Don Guacamole’s has only been open a month, but it has already generated some hype, so we had to line up. Once we got our table, we got a couple of drinks and ordered a bunch of tacos and a plate of nachos Norteños. The menu is well priced, and the tacos are quite cheap – $2.50 a piece ¬– my only criticism is that I think the price of the margaritas is a bit off. They start at $8.50 and come in a martini glass, which when you include the ice is a pretty shallow drink out of a six ounce glass. Anyway, glassware and margaritas aside, we were also given a plate of complementary chips and salsa, which included fresh-cut, red and green salsa. This is a very nice touch, which makes people feel like they’re getting good value and also probably encourages them to consume a few additional $8.50 margaritas.
The nachos came first, and were really tasty. Not your everyday nacho recipe, these chips come with some sort of ground beef and chorizo like Mexican sausage that is slavered in a sort of slightly sweet and tangy gravy. We ordered the small nachos, but the serving was pretty huge.
Then came the carne asada tacos, and for the first time this side of the border, I had authentic carne asada. In case you’ve forgotten about my verbose ranting at the outset, this is a big deal! Okay, as I said, the problem has always been with the beef, and for once it was simple and just the way it should be. Almost dry, tangy and delicious. The tortillas were corn and tasted handmade or at least were very fresh. To get fussy and critical, they could use slightly more cilantro and onion on top, but they were still a mile better than anything I’ve had in town. The salsa selection that came with chips at the beginning was all that I personally needed – for those of you who love Dona Cata’s on Victoria, Don Guacamole's doesn't have 19 salsas to choose from, but this carne asada blows Cata’s out of the water.
To be honest, there isn’t much more to be said. All I’ve been looking for is the equivalent of simple street side taco stand, and I’ve found it. I have no idea why it has taken so long, but I’m not complaining now that I’ve found it. I haven’t tried anything else on the menu other than the nachos, and quite honestly, I don’t plan to. It’s been seven long years, and I plan on making up for some lost time. So please if you do try something else worth eating there, let me know and I might convince my wife to order it and steal some when she’s not looking.