(Or, Never Let Photography Get in the Way of Tacos)
She flew all the way in from Salt Lake City just to make tacos. Not regular tacos — those can be found in various Tex and Mex styles all over the East Coast — but an entirely new kind. And I missed them.
Navajo tacos, also known as frybread, are extremely popular in the U.S. Southwest. Their origin has cultural meaning as deep as any piece of matzoh: the simple dough of flour, sugar and salt fried in lard was invented to use rations given to the Navajo tribe during their forced exodus from Arizona to New Mexico in the 1860s.
Utah resident Marcie Espinoza is an expert in making the dish, which requires a careful handling of the dough as it is sunk into a vat of boiling oil (this is apparently called “flapping”). She runs a frybread-focused restaurant in her hometown, but was in Philly for one night because her son Marcos (aka Fidel Gastro) organized a Navajo taco popup at dive bar 12 Steps Down.
I was excited to attend the event — how often do you get a chance to try an entirely new kind of taco? — so I made my way two whole blocks through the cold and down the staircase to arrive at the Italian Market bar about an hour after the 9 PM start time.
My husband took one look whiff of the intense cigarette smoke floating out from the packed room (12 Steps is grandfathered in) and skedaddled. I stayed, eager to taste. At the door, I ordered two tacos, one with spicy beef and another with ropa vieja chicken (they were already sold out of the pork ribs variety). Aric, happily playing hookey from regular work for the night, handed me a ticket and said, “Number 20.”
After finding a spot for my jacket at the crowded bar and waving hello to a few faces in the crowd, I peeked into the bright kitchen. “Can I take photos?” I asked, and the response was a vigorous nod yes.
It was a frenzied scene. Professional chef Lucio Palazzo (usually found at La Calaca Feliz) was running the show, expediting from the head of a table cluttered with a mis en place of colorful toppings. On one side Hawk Krall was arranging ingredients on top of the fried puffs, in his haste somehow still creating designs nearly as artistic as his famous sandwich drawings. On the other side Marcos was doing the same.
At the back was Marcie, doing a non-stop dance: snatch ball of dough, turn it quickly inside out and again over on itself, stretch it just right, drop it in the oil, flip it, move the bubbling bread from the bath onto towels and start again.
I was mesmerized by the ordered confusion. I’ve been in restaurant kitchens before, but a pop up kitchen has a nervous edge all of its own. Numbers were being shouted out right and left as the crew tried to keep up with the runners.
A new order would come in just as quickly as a ready dish was sent out. Paper plates brimming with tomatoes and cheese and meat and crackling bread were tossed back and forth at rapid speed – at one point even in the wrong direction, as two tacos came back from the bar without finding their owner.
After watching and snapping photos for 10 minutes or so, I went back out to wait for my turn to eat the goods. I settled next to an old friend and — when he refused to do a shot of whiskey with me — made a new one, who happily tossed it back. I had a beer.
I regarded at my neighbor’s “dessert frybread” with amusement. I waited. I greeted new friends on arrival. “How was it?” they asked. “Don’t know yet, still waiting!” I replied. I waited. They got their tacos, munched on them, happily. I stewed, jealous. Where was my order?
I looked at my phone. It was past 11 PM. I was hungry and my husband was waiting at home. So much for the tacos, I thought, and on a tipsy whim, turned and hustled out, displeased and unfed. So much for getting to try a new kind of food, echoed inside my head on the short trot home.
It was only the next morning that I realized what had happened. That order I saw being returned to the kitchen — those two tacos without a home — those had been my tacos. But I was involved in taking photos, and there had been no way for the crew to know they were mine, since they were just tagged by a number, nothing more. Moral of the story: never let photography get in the way of tacos. Just don’t do it.