Where the Meats Have No Name

The magic words
photo: Nina Lalli

I never knew how much I loved the "other parts" of a pig until a recent visit to East 116th street, a/k/a "Taco Row." In the evening, taco opportunities are somewhat limited, but my date and I found ourselves under a neon sign reading the magic words: "Mexican Food Tortas Tacos." We had arrived at Michelle's Deli & Grocery, a small storefront with radishes, tomatillos, watermelon, and much more out front. Walking past cactus and a large selection of dried chile peppers, we followed our noses and the sounds of sizzling treats to a narrow counter in the back of the store.

Having been stupid enough not to study Spanish in school, I applied broken Italian to a board mounted overhead. It was easy enough to figure that "carnitas" meant "little meat" (we crossed our fingers for pork) and chorizo meant chorizo. To our delight, a young woman behind the counter tossed a handful of miscellaneous pork scraps onto a hot griddle while her assistant broke up loose chorizo as it browned. The goods were then wrapped in store-brand flour tortillas (freshly made would clearly have been better, but I am not one to make a scene in a grocery store) and topped with crumbly white cheese (Asadero or Oaxaca) and cilantro.

The chorizo was ordinary packaged junk, but the carnitas . . . Oh! The carnitas! All manners were instantly discarded as we fork-fought over fallen morsels and asked each other, "Why is this so good? What is this?" I investigated the internal workings of the thing to find, alongside recognizable bits of flesh, slices of gelatinous, long cooked cartilage of some sort, and then resumed hogging more than my share. To finish, we did like our Mexican neighbor a few stools down and chewed some grassy-tasting leaves of pepicha—an herb commonly used in green salsas, squash, and corn—which was standing in a quart container full of water.

On our next round, we sampled a "cecina" taco (also pork meat but no mystery cartilage this time) and bisteck (sliced steak) at Taco Mix, a storefront with the singular purpose of prepared food—no grocery items. There were quart containers on the counter again, but these held floating radish slices and lime wedges, no pepicha. The bisteck was salty and delicious, but the memory of that first cartilage taco haunted me. While paying our $4 grand total, the sight of someone else's tacos made us jump. There it was!

My date inquired in Spanglish as to what was in these peculiar tacos, and the cook behind the counter pinched his ear and said, "hear?" After a bit of confusion we realized he was saying "ear." Mystery ostensibly solved, we dug into a straight-up ear taco. But it was slightly different, still full of flavor but with a firm, white center core. It left our mouths and fingers sticky, causing bits of napkin to adhere themselves when we tried to tidy up. This is not a complaint by any means; in fact it reminded us of osso buco, and no one complains about that.

The next day I enlisted a Spanish-speaker to verify that our first gelatinous pork experience was, in fact, ear. But to my surprise it was not. All they would say was that the carnitas taco includes "other parts" of the pig. Whatever they are (feet? snout? intestine?), they are my new favorites.

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