For the Love of Tacos
My forays into Mexican food on both coasts
This week I decided to try something new by offering an audio version of my content. You can listen to me read this essay (with expression, of course) by clicking Play below.
I put on my taco socks Tuesday morning and thought, I need tacos today for lunch. Not the taqueria ones I fell in love with while living in Southern California, served on a plate with a radish rose garnish and lime wedge. I wanted cheap, hard shell tacos that were my entry into Mexican food as a child, the same way many east coasters learned to like Mexican food.
I wound up at Toucan Taco in Laurel, which celebrated 50 years in business last year and is still called by its former name, Tippy’s Taco House, by many of the locals who have been going there for decades. I went to Tippy’s Taco House many times in my youth, but I don’t remember coming to this one. My family went to a Tippy’s on Route 1 in College Park that later became Terrapin Taco, and perhaps another in Lanham/Seabrook area; I can’t remember for sure and my father doesn’t, either. When I asked him what he remembered about going to Tippy’s, he said we cried when the Route 1 location closed, but I think he was being dramatic.
In my memory, the Tippy’s Taco House buildings were usually small white painted brick and metal, with counter service only. Napkin dispensers were at every table and bottles of hot sauce lined one end of the counter; you took one to your table if you were eating in. The food came in plastic baskets, lined with wax paper, or on a double- or triple-stacked paper plate. A hand-lettered sign on the trash receptacle lid reminded you to please not throw away the baskets, and a black plastic dishwashing bin on top of the can was labeled PLACE BASKETS HERE. If their hot sauce wasn’t spicy enough for you, the cashier would hand you packets of generic tabasco. The tables were a dingy white melamine and the chairs formed plastic with metal legs that scraped against the linoleum floor. Some Tippy’s may have had the picnic bench-style seating like fast food places did, the seats hard acrylic stools with the tops painted red, yellow, or blue to give the illusion of being cushioned.
My family went to Tippy’s when we were hungry and craving Mexican food, but didn’t want to fuss with table service. Back then, there was only one Taco Bell in the area and it was far from where we lived in Hyattsville. Over our baskets of tacos and paper plates of enchiladas, we might say to each other in low voices that Alamo in Riverdale was better, or Plata Grande, the more upscale Mexican restaurant off I-95 in Calverton, or Momcat’s favorite, La Casita in Southeast DC. But the point was filling our bellies with cheap tacos and enchiladas, not having a delightful gustatory experience.
When Emily* came to town in March, three out of four of our meals out were at Mexican restaurants. Living in Europe, she doesn’t eat any Mexican food unless she cooks it, and their ingredient options are limited. When I visited Emily in 2018, I was amazed at the Old El Paso brand selection at the hypermarché: there were products I’d never seen in U.S. grocery stores. But then we have entire aisles and grocery stores full of Mexican and Central American food items; the bigger brands wouldn’t find the same customer base here now. Emily told me about a couple she knows who would return from trips to the States with bags of masa flour in their luggage so they could make authentic Mexican food at home, rather than rely on processed items. I took her to Tampico Grill, a Tex-Mex style restaurant near me, where she ordered chicken enchiladas with mole sauce. “Take a photo for my kids,” she asked as she cut into her food, eating with a knife and fork in the European tradition that most of us Americans rarely use. “They’ve never eaten Mexican food.”
Living in California for more than 15 years made me a bit of a taco snob for a while. Being around more authentic Mexican food options, as opposed to the Tex-Mex restaurants of my youth, made a huge difference. Out in California, the tacos were never in hard corn shells, but instead came wrapped in soft corn tortillas, with raw onion and fresh cilantro on top of whatever meat filling you chose from a long list of options. When I lived in Long Beach, there were two excellent taquerias within walking distance of my apartment. Brite Spot had counter service and booths where you could watch the flat screen TVs showing telenovelas, soccer, or “Sábado Gigante” while you waited for your order. Casa Sanchez was further down the street and the food was just as good, but the inside seating area was dark and dismal, and the outside dining area tended to have a problem with ants. The Del Taco fast food chains had three tacos for a buck on Tuesdays and menu items I’d never seen anywhere: burritos filled with rice, veggies, beans and meat; quesadillas with spicy pepper jack cheese and chicken. The first place I lived in Riverside was adjacent to a Del Taco, so close I could hear the drive-thru speakers if the wind was blowing just right. A few months after living there I rarely went to Taco Bell anymore – Del Taco quality seemed better to me, more flavorful. Now whenever I visit California, I make a point of eating most of my meals at Mexican restaurants, and to this day, an egg and cheese burrito from Del Taco with hash brown sticks and a large Coke is my all-time favorite fast food breakfast.
When I still lived in California and would come back to Maryland to see my parents, I’d still go to the Alamo Restaurant in Riverdale with Pops, but that restaurant was an exception: this was the restaurant where we’d come after church for lunch most Saturdays. The Tex-Mex style food was consistently good, the portions plentiful. As a kid, I’d get an order of three beef hard shell tacos, Momcat ordered the chile relleno, and Pops got the San Antonio platter, which included 2 cheese enchiladas, a taco and a tamale. Momcat would order a side of Mexican rice for the two of us to share. We would take home any extra rice, along with any leftover chips and a cup of salsa. Watching “Josie and the Pussycats” on Sunday mornings with chips and salsa was a special treat. When the Alamo was sold to new owners, they wisely retained the chef that had made them a beloved restaurant in the area for decades. And their salsa was the gold standard for me: just the right amount of heat, not too chunky, but thick enough to cling to a crisp, still-warm tortilla chip. It was the place where Dad’s phrase “don’t fill up on chips” began and would continue to ring out within five minutes of the chip bowl and accompanying salsa being brought to the table. As an adult, I graduated to their chicken or steak fajitas, the sound of meat and vegetables sizzling on the cast iron plate letting me know my meal was about to be placed in front of me.
At Toucan Taco, I order the San Antonio meal, which is nothing like the one Alamo offers; theirs is two tacos, with three filling choices, plus chips and either queso or guacamole. I opt for a bean taco and a spicy chicken taco, both hard shell, with guacamole instead of queso. The queso is famous around these parts, referred to as liquid gold by some. My love-hate relationship with dairy precludes me from partaking, but if I’d been dining with a friend, I might have said yes. The server is a warm, efficient young Latina woman. She laughs when I point out my taco socks and checks on me several times during my meal. It’s a relatively quiet afternoon, with a table of middle-aged white guys nearby on their lunch break and an older white couple across from me. Based on how everyone is talking, I can tell they are all regulars. I read an article about the restaurant’s history on VICE: how the Payerles opened the franchise in 1972, then changed the name after the license expired twenty years later. In 2008, their daughter Ginger bought the business when they were ready to retire, and shepherded it through the pandemic. Not much of the original décor has changed, nor has the menu. Toucan Taco’s customers crave constancy and consistency as much as they crave the queso. And I get it, because in a town that has shifted from a sleepy DC suburb to bustling city in the last 25 years, knowing that the dark brown building with the pink and blue flashing OPEN sign is ready to serve up meat tacos with a side of queso and a large Coke is reassurance that you’re okay, you’re gonna make it through the day, the work week, the month, the year.
*Not her real name
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