Thursday, August 11, 2011

Smelling the Roses

Pete's Tako House
1022 North Main Avenue
(where Lex & Main come together)

N.B.: Reports are that this business has relocated to 502 Brooklyn Avenue, downtown, near the River. I haven't verified that myself. 8/8/12

There are a few regular commentators on Urbanspoon whose opinion I feel is reliable. That's not to say that I agree with them; quite often I don't, but I find they write about restaurants with sufficient precision (and, to be honest, much greater conciseness than I generally try for) that I can tell where I will likely agree or disagree. One of those commentators is "Lepricano," a guy who spends too much time in New York and Las Vegas to be completely trustworthy, but who seems nonetheless to have a solid real-world foundation for his opinions. 

I came across his comments on Pete's Tako House this morning while trying to decide where to have breakfast, and his evaluation, agreeing with a previous comment expressed by a writer I don't know enough about, convinced me that this place is worth a visit.

Let's be honest: I've been passing by Pete's Tako House for twenty years, and was never the least bit tempted to stop in. For one thing, I almost always passed by in the late afternoon, after it had closed. For another, it always had a derelict and shuttered look to it (well, it would, being closed and all); and the neighbourhood it's in doesn't, in the evening hours, inspire great feelings of security: it is surrounded by offices that are deserted by 6PM, and by gay bars that, whatever they may be like on the inside, look from the outside like perfect spots for a drug deal.

Last city inspection: October 2010
26 demerits
But here it was, late morning, and I'm in the mood for tacos. I summon my personal Kato/Robin/Tonto and head off towards downtown. 

During the daytime, with cars in its tiny parking lot, Pete's doesn't look nearly as forbidding as it used to on the way home from work. It stands on a point of land jutting into the jumbled intersection where Main and Lexington Avenues separate (or come together), and where Maple Street ends (or begins). I wouldn't call it welcoming, exactly: it still has the aura of a converted gas station (which, maybe, it actually is); but it doesn't scare me off. 

Inside is a dining room that's small even by taquería standards. It has about a dozen tables, close together, yet somehow their proximity to one another doesn't have the same discomfiting characteristic that I've noted in other places (most recently this week, at Magnolia Pancake Haus). Taquerías are supposed to be like this; exactly like this. Menu board on the wall; cash register in the back, keeping the kitchen company; random pictures on the wall veering from art to camp to commercial; a thrum of noise from machinery and conversation that never overwhelms, like white noise. 

The waiter greets us as though we were regulars; he is cheerful, gregarious, welcoming, and efficient. We have our drinks in a moment, he answers questions about the food succinctly, and our orders are placed. We barely have time to admire the architecture of the retirement home looming over Crockett Park in the distance, or comment on the photograph of the Pope-mobile passing by on the street, before tacos are placed before us. Mine are in corn tortillas, wrapped tight in foil; Rick's are in thin home-made flour tortillas.

The quality of the food is kind of like recent stock-market averages: it's up and down. Rick's flour tortillas are, he swears (and if I had a stack of Bibles, I'm sure he'd swear on them), the best he's had in a long, long time. He thinks the picadillo is a little underseasoned, not quite as good as he had at Blanquita's; he calls his bean-and-bacon taco outstanding. He offers me not a taste, so all I can do is report his opinion. I will say that his taco fillings looked good, though.

My tacos are chilaquiles and machacado. The chilaquiles are disappointing, not because they're bad — they're not — but because they don't live up to the billing provided by the comments on Urbanspoon. The ingredients are correct, the tortillas are on the well-made, high-quality side (for corn tortillas; what can I say? yo soy gringo), and the eggs and chilaquiles themselves (the actual fried corn-tortilla pieces that give the dish its name) are cooked just right. But I thought the texture suffered from excessive hurry in the kitchen; the pico needed to be left in the pan, or on the grill, maybe half a minute longer, to break down the cell-walls in the onion and pepper. As it was, they were too crunchy to be satisfying. One of the things I love about chilaquiles, when they're made the way I like them, is the range of textures. If the pico isn't allowed to soften sufficiently, that range is curtailed, and that's what I found at Pete's.

The machacado, on the other hand, was outstanding. In most places, the machacado (the dried, shredded meat that gives this dish it's name) is kind of like gas-station jerky: tasty and chewy. Here, the meat is just like what I find in Mexico. Here it is actually dry. It is finely shredded and has a texture that is closer to wood than steak, and yes, I know that sounds just awful, but that's what it's supposed to be like. To eat it, you must chew slowly and thoughtfully, and that's the beauty of a well-made machacado taco: it forces you to slow down and relish the flavours, enjoy the textures, appreciate the qualities of what you're eating. I suppose if I ate nothing but machacado tacos from Pete's Tako House, I'd be as thin as that guy Jared who eats at Subway, because I have to eat it so very slowly. 

Really, that's a good thing, a very good thing.

Pete's Tako House on Urbanspoon

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