Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Best Tacos in the United States.

Earlier this week I set Instagram on FIRE (more or less) by posting a picture proclaiming I had eaten the best tacos I've ever had in the United States at a place called Tacos Don Joaquin in Provo, Utah. Today I am going to take too many words to tell you about those tacos.

The experience actually begins last November when my brother Greg had his wedding reception at the Startup Building across from the Provo train tracks. I discovered there was what looked like a refugee camp of Latin American food stalls in the parking lot of the warehouse across the street...and apparently a Mexican night club (or really awesome birthday party?) in that warehouse. I poked my head around and snuck into the night club for a second, but that was it. I left with a very, very good feeling about the whole situation.

Then this Saturday I'm in Provo once more for another wedding reception, this one in honor of Jared and Eve. As the wedding winds down and plans are being made to meet at the Creamery for ice cream, I slink off with Collin on a mission to investigate that taco encampment I saw last November.

It only takes the righting of a couple wrong turns for me to find the warehouse...driving by my heart sinks to see that there are no food stands set up in the parking lot this Saturday night. But the heart-sink immediately rebounds when I see the doors of the warehouse are open and there are happenings within. Righting my direction with a very sloppy three point turn, I'm hit by a smell that sends me into a fit of babbling joy. It's a smell that triggers my strongest sense-memories, a mix of masa and meat that yanks me back to my first nights in outer Mexico City 18 years ago, ordering my first Mexico City street meals from venders on my block, bending over to fit beneath a tarp as the nightly rainstorm cleans the city. I could have just sat in that car and sobbed and remembered with Collin, instead we park and go in.

(We park on the street but there is a parking lot for the warehouse. A jittery and himself suspicious man is the lot attendant, reflective vest and all).

Heading into the warehouse there's a cartoonish banner above the door for "Tacos Don Joaquin" encouraging all to find them on Facebook. Within the warehouse: Brightness and Families. Many tables, many chairs, on my left: stalls selling aguas frescas, nieves, esquites, and balloons and toys. On my right: A cash register and a hand written taco menu.

A hand written list of meats on a florescent poster board is one of the best indicators that an establishment trades in exceptional tacos. And now I wish I had put a hundred dollars in that tip jar.

This photo of Collin illustrates the brief wait for our tacos. 
I order a carne asada taco, a chorizo taco and a taco al pastor. I pass on cabeza and tripa. Although I'm order #13 and they're calling #8 after I make my order my tacos arrive in no time flat. I take them to the salsa bar to cilantro and onion, lime and salt them and toss on a little salsa. The chorizo and al pastor get the red, the carne asada the green as well as some sliced pickled onions with diced habaneros—the jaw-bracingly, tooth-achingly spicy cousin of the more common pickled jalepeños with carrots.

I go about this world eating tacos as much as possible and I'm no fiend for authenticity (you've seen me go nuts at Del Taco, you know how I am) but there is a sacred checklist in my mind that I hold each taco I eat up to, seeing how closely it comes to the pure happiness I knew in Mexico. These tacos that Don Joaquin made me (or whomever it was back in that backroom the tacos came out of) melded with my checklist as if they were one. The meats themselves were delicious with crispy edges, the al pastor, taco of my heart, especially perfect (and very generous with the grilled pineapple...but the funny thing about me is I don't require piña with my al pastor, I get worked up over the pork and pineapple is just a bonus to me). The salsas all seemed perfect matches, the grease level was just right, each taco came on two small tortillas. It was heaven. It was absolute heaven I could have died in my seat or I could have lived in my seat forever. I could not have been happier anywhere else, or maybe if I got a Fanta I would have been a tiny bit happier, but I was totally over the moon. I bounced between stunned silence and fits of rambling. I shouldn't have eaten all day. I should have had a dozen more tacos. I couldn't have been happier with my three tacos. But I should have had twenty more tacos.

Post meal, we made our way out of the warehouse through another door, took a glimpse at what was happening in the night club portion of the warehouse...looked more like a birthday or a Quince to me. We walked passed Mexican teenagers hanging out in cowboy clothes in the parking lot, they asked us if we smoked, I wondered if they were asking in the way they ask in Washington Square. Leaving the parking lot a broad-shouldered fellow in a SECURITY t-shirt stopped us with a "Hey! Hey!" to ask what we had been doing there. "Eating tacos." I could not have said it more innocently. This seemed a satisfactory answer.

The next day I asked Andrew three time if I had told him about the tacos I had the night before.

I started doing a little internet research on Don Joaquin and there was nothing on his Provo operation. BUT I found reports on a Don Joaquin that sounded a lot like my Joaquin operating out of Springville, south of Provo. I concocted the theory that that was their permanent operation and that on weekends they came to Provo for the warehouse crowd. And on Monday I took Andrew down to Springville to see that I was right.

I was right. Same signs, but more meats. That evening business was pretty slow and Don Joaquin a little hard to locate in a silent stripmall where every business looks like it's probably closed. Inside Don Joaquin there were plenty of tables, some with paper towel rolls on them, some without, most of them with chairs that hadn't been pushed back in since the last diner was there. Behind the counter: just the friendliest taco slingers you could imagine. "Are you cash only?" I asked, "Naw, we take cash, credit, checks . . . uh, you can come back and pay us tomorrow . . . everything." I wanted to know all there was to know about Don Joaquin, and since they'd made me such good "normal" tacos Saturday, I ordered a tongue taco, a cabeza taco, and a tripa taco as well.

I do not usually (or ever) have these types of tacos.

Naked tacos: al pastor, tripa, chorizo and carne asada with roasted spring onion and jalepeño as well.
Cabeza on top, lengua below.

It was pretty much a mistake to have ordered those tacos. The cabeza taco was fine, it tasted like roasted cow meat, but the lengua was too stewy and tongue-y for me and the tripe tacos, ok, well, I don't know what I was expecting besides diced trip because that's what I got. I salsa'd these tacos rather heavily to have the best chance with them, but a bite of each was sufficient for me to know I was outclassed by them.

The chorizo, carne asada, and al pastor, however: Good as Gold once more. Had to get a second al pastor, Andrew said he should've only gotten tacos al pastor and I agreed. Why research so hard when you know what you really want?

Look at this mad and simple beauty.
Andrew is one of those reasonable people who does not photograph all his food. That's how special these tacos are.
There's also this sign on the door there advertising their Taco Tuesday special where all tacos are a buck (or, in other words, twenty five to fifty cents cheaper than other nights). I could not help but imagine living out in Utah, rolling up to Don Joaquin's every Tuesday and eating 12 tacos al pastor for 12 bucks. What a life. What a life the good people of Utah can have.

It gets the thumbs up.

Okay, one word of honesty: The only thing keeping these tacos from being A++ tacos and not just A+ tacos is I think the steamed tortillas should spend a little more time on the grill. That's it! Just my preference.


Dad said...

I can't wait to eat there. Maybe we'll take Blake (and family) for his birthday. Sounds like the best meal deal in the USA.

spflower said...

Brigham... This may be totally inappropriate but, I love you. I love your words, your pictures, the fact that you're such great friends with Andrew AND manage to capture him on camera, and just the wonderful person that you are. Also that you love tacos.

Anonymous said...

how does the al pastor compare to chunga's in slc

Brigham said...

Anon it's been a bunch of years since I've been to Chungas. I've got a lot of Utah Mexican re-research to do.