Making and Selling a Taco

in Culture by

This column first appeared on Latino Rebels

For this week’s Taco Tuesday, my wife and I decided to try this birria place her sister raved about the last time she visited. Ay! Jalisco‘s the name of it. The nearest location is a ways away from where we live on the edge of Las Vegas, in the foothills of Black Mountain—we actually had to take the freeway for a good five minutes to get there—but it’s just close enough for a midweek trip to a taco joint getting good word-of-mouth reviews, and right around the corner from the freeway exit, too.

There were no other customers on the scene, which is usually a terrible omen, especially at 6:30 p.m. on a Taco Tuesday. The place should’ve been bursting from the seams, with a group of rowdy teenagers monkeying around at a table, and a fight brewing between brazers out in the parking lot. At least that’s the vibe at the best taco spots back in Chicago.

I must’ve never had birria tacos before, because while the food in the pictures looked delicious, they didn’t look like any tacos I’d ever seen: double-layered in fried tortillas, with maybe something between the tortillas. The way they prepared it made the outer tortilla oily and sort of crisp—almost how Hondurans pan-fry their quesadillas in oil—while the inner tortilla kept its softness. And they served it along with a little styrofoam cup filled with what looked like the grease juice they dunk Italian beefs in, only with the cilantro and cebolla demanded of any Mexican place.

I didn’t actually get the regular birria tacos, but the “QuesaBirria”—like the “BirriaTaco” but with cheese. I ordered three of them.

As my wife was ordering her two regulars and an horchata, I noticed they had “Special” meat options: lengua, tripas, cabeza. I asked the server manning the tablet to “give me uno de cabeza too, please.”

She said, “One de cabeza?” and I said, “Yeah, please,” and she said “O.K.,” and started pressing buttons on the tablet, her eyes squinting.

Then I ordered an horchata, and she goes, “small or large?” Without even checking the menu overhead, I say, “Medium.”

She goes, “Medium…” in a shaky little voice, and starts pressing buttons on the tablet again.

It was only later that I realized there was no medium option on the menu, only small or large. My wife must’ve asked for a large, because the girl brought us two big-ass plastic cups filled with what the gringos call “rice water.”

A veteran of the food service myself, with two tours in Italian cuisine and a brief stint in casual dining before I went AWOL, I know there are really two reasons why a server wouldn’t make the extra effort to clarify a customer’s order: they either 1) don’t give a shit about their job or their customers, which is the same thing in any service industry; or 2) they’re too afraid to speak up.

I can respect someone not giving a shit about their job, since giving a shit about your job is a privilege. And if I, the customer, can’t be bothered with reading the menu, there’s a decent argument for saying she, the customer service rep, doesn’t need to bother with getting my order perfectly right.

Most people aren’t doing what they want to do for a living, and our system of spreading resources makes it so most people will have to do things they don’t want to do just to eat something, sleep under a roof, and live a little longer.

But if you can’t even fake doing a good job and caring about customers, then stay out of the food service. Life is hard enough without having to deal with some jerk serving you food when you’ve already made the tremendous effort to get presentable and eat a meal out in the real world.

Of course, the onus also falls on the customer to not be an jerk, either.

It’s every person’s right not to give a shit, about anything, but not around other people’s food.

We’ve all dealt with people who couldn’t care less about the quality of their work, much less their people-pleasing skills—typically among government employees. They sigh loud, move incredibly slow, or speak with a tone.

I’m pretty sure the server who took our birria order wasn’t one of these people. She seemed nervous, shy, with a soft voice, and wide-eyed.

There was a brown kid behind the counter with her, too, the nerdy type, big glasses, lanky. They could’ve been brother and sister, by how they looked and how they acted with one another, hardly speaking but in perfect communication. While one worked the pad, the other coordinated with the cooks in the back.

We sat at a table. A while passed, more people came in, placed their orders, and sat at the other tables, and my wife and I started wondering where our tacos were at. Out of the sides of our eyes we had been watching some intermittent commotion behind the counter every time a new order was placed. Things were getting mixed up back there. There seemed to be some miscommunication between the kids and the kitchen, and since everybody in the back was at least older than 30, I still figure it must’ve been the kids’ doing. Plus the kids looked nervous while the adults looked more and more annoyed.

All the information was funneled through an older lady. I wouldn’t want to offend her by trying to guess her age, but I’d say she easily could’ve been their mother. She spoke in a hard low tone with them and pointed a lot, while the kids paid close attention to everything she told them.

She was definitely in charge. La jefa.

Now, I’m saying she was their mother, and that they were brother and sister, but she probably wasn’t their mother at all, and the two kids probably weren’t related either. Maybe they just treated her like their mother.

In Latino culture, every woman your mother’s age is like a half-mother. This is especially true if you’re a young second-generation Latino and your mother is the one who came over from the old country: then you treat every immigrant woman your mother’s age like a half-mother, especially if she acts like your mother and your mother’s not around.

It could be these were just two random kids hired by this lady who was the manager. And since she was first-generation and they were second-generation—a second-gen kid myself, I can just tell these things—they merely fell into the pattern of behavior with her that they have with their first-gen moms back at home, at the same time falling into the same pattern of behavior with each other that they have with their second-gen siblings and cousins—second-gen kids almost always have a lot of siblings or cousins, and usually both.

Plus, in a blue-collar workplace where everybody’s Latino, things can get real familiar, even intimate, to the point where an outsider might get the impression that people must be related somehow.

But strangers sometimes get offended when you ask them if they’re related to so-and-so, and you risk coming off racist to boot. So the true nature of the relationships between the workers at the restaurant must remain a mystery.

“Bad system they got here,” I said to my wife.

Without turning to me, as if she were speaking into AirPods, she says, “I could’ve told you that from the start. First of all, how are they keeping track of who ordered what?”

“And I just noticed there’s no medium option for horchata,” I said. “So when I told her medium, what did she press?”

“I caught that, too,” she said.

Between my wife and me, we try to catch everything, and compare notes.

Around 15 minutes in, the girl brought our tacos to the table. I noticed that instead of giving me three QuesaBirrias and one taco de cabeza, like I’d ordered, she only replaced one of my QuesaBirrias with a taco de cabeza.

The old add-replace error is a common one in the food service, stemming from the same failure to clarify.

To the young servers of the world, or those just starting out: If you’re not sure, ask. Sure, it hurts to inconvenience a customer with a follow-up question, but to screw up a customer’s order stings much worse. So just bite the bullet and ask.

Still, I was glad she made the mistake. The QuesaBirria was twice as big as a street taco, and way more filling than a regular taco its size, with the cheese, the birria and the double tortilla—plus, of course, cilantro and cebolla.

I’m sure I never had a birria taco before, because I would’ve known how to eat one. As with all things Mexican, I looked to my Mexican-born wife to guide me through it, but she had no clue, either.

We had the birria tacos and a cup each of the grease juice with cilantro and cebolla floating in it. Being from Chicago, we did what every Chicagoan is trained to do in such situations: we dunked our tacos in the grease juice, and bit into them. Whether or not that’s the proper way to eat a birria taco, it did the trick.

Those QuesaBirrias are the best tacos I’ve eaten out here in Vegas, and some of the best tacos I’ve ever eaten anywhere. Some might argue that they’re technically quesadillas, due to the cheese, and hence the name. Cheese in tacos is a controversial subject, and most of the Mexicans I’ve surveyed say that cheese has no business being in a taco. Same goes for tomato. Just leave it at cilantro and cebolla, they say, plus the sauce of your choice, the hottest you can take.

But I’ve been corrupted, apparently, because I like tacos either way, whether with cheese and tomato added, or just the cilantro and cebolla—I like tacos however they come, really. There was this Mexican store at the end of my block where we did our weekly compra, La Rosita. And as the greatest tienditas tend to do, they sold tacos there, some of the best in town. Their tacos were made with cheese and tomato, so I grew up not knowing that putting cheese and tomato in a taco was taboo.

I took my dog for a long walk just now, and realized that the birria place must be some kind of metaphor for Latino America itself, and the relationship between the pre-Internet generations and the newer ones.

That first-gen woman was the backbone and brains of the entire operation, and the cooks, whom I’d guess were first-gen too, were the hands. But the kids, though they couldn’t cook or coordinate for squat, they were the face of the restaurant, as well as its data entry clerks and IT experts. Only they interacted with the customers, and only they worked the tablet.

The woman and the cooks were frustrated with the kids, but they knew they needed those kids, which probably made them even more frustrated. Had the woman’s English been strong enough, had she known how to work the tablet, the whole operation might’ve been ten times better.

Second-gen Latinos constantly live in the shadow of their parents’ generation. The older I get, the more in awe I am of what my mother and grandmother did, how they went from where they were to where they are now. My life has changed drastically in my 36 years, but I wasn’t born in a hovel in some mountain village in Honduras, with no electricity or plumbing in the whole place, only to finish my years in a three-story house in a now trendy area of Chicago, like my grandma, whose also been all over the world at least a dozen times. I can’t imagine walking around as a kid with no shoes for months, like my mom was forced to do, and then growing up and being able to buy pretty much whatever I want—though the most my mom will splurge is on a decent espresso machine or some other fancy appliance.

I can’t imagine moving to a city I know nothing about, in a country where I don’t speak the language, opening a store, and making enough money to send my kids to private school, like Grandma did. I can’t imagine coming from Honduras as a little girl, joining the U.S. Navy and being stationed in Cuba, and then coming home to work the graveyard shift at a warehouse where I’m one of the few women, and one of only two certified to drive a forklift, all while raising three kids, like Mom did.

My wife and I work hard, but our work is desk work. And while we do put in long hours, ending every day beat and drained, it isn’t like what our parents had to do, everything they had to deal with. We like to think we’re better parents than our parents were, more enlightened, making sure our daughter has all of the support and guidance she needs to become a strong, smart, kind, and independent person, but we only have the one kid, not three like my mother, or five like my wife’s parents.

There’s just no way to compare us to our parents. They did what they had to do, we’re doing what we think we need to do, and while we work our brains dry every day, in honor of the sacrifices they made for us, we thank our lucky stars that we don’t have to do what our parents had to do.

The same is true with the pre-Internet generations and the younger ones. As an older Millennial, born in ’84, my character was shaped by an environment that doesn’t exist anymore. The soil which bore me is long gone.

And due to the cultural and economic differences between my 16-year-old’s world and the one which raised me, I know that she won’t have to do what I had to do. Her life is easier in tons of ways, as far as how easy it is to learn and be entertained, and she can pretty much have whatever she wants, within reason, so long as she holds up her end of the bargain with good grades and no trouble.

But of course, all the ease and comfort of her world masks how difficult it is for her generation, underneath everything. Her generation has been brought up in a world careening toward chaos—9/11, endless wars, social media, a recession, the climate crisis, Obama and the flaring up racial tensions, Trump, porn on tap, QAnon, a global pandemic, and now an even deeper recession.

Things look bleak, so I can’t imagine being a young person these days, trying to map out my future. A firm plan would seem pointless to me—even more pointless than it did to me when I was sixteen.

We’re all coming from different worlds: our first-gen parents from the old countries, us second-gens from a pre-Internet world which turned digital all around us, and these newer generations being raised completely in the digital world, with all of its real-life crises. And though we may judge each other for what we lack, just as with that birria place, we need each other, and we know it.

We’re all relying on each other’s strengths, combining our skills and experience, desperate to make this thing work.

 

Featured image: El Sarape

Hector is the editor of MANO. He's also the host of Latinish and Hits from the Brain. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's a former deputy editor of Latino Rebels, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, TIME and other outlets, and his writing was featured in Ricanstruction, a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Hector studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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