I sometimes wonder what a Chinese farmer or a Masai herder would think if you dropped him off at a bakery in Paris, with case after case of crusty, puffy, crumbly, and pillowy wheat-flour constructions, each with its own name and glorious history. Would he be able to distinguish a ficelle from a baguette, a croissant from a palmier? Or would it all taste like a bunch of dough?
Because I certainly felt a little like a displaced eater when trying to describe the subtle differences between a dozen varieties of antojitos at El Huarache Azteca, on Oakland's International Boulevard.
Antojitos -- "little whims" in Spanish--are those cornmeal-based snacks found all over Mexico. Like the French with their bread and the Peruvians with their potatoes, Mexican cooks have found a thousand different ways to pull, form, stuff, and cook masa, the specially prepared cornmeal used to make tortillas, tamales, and other antojitos (see The Kitchen Sink).
Antojitos are a street-food snack, an appetizer, a light meal. You can find many of the same treats at taquerias around the Bay Area. You just won't find them made so elegantly.
For a restaurant that promises a tour of masa, El Huarache Azteca starts off with some boring Tostitos-style corn chips. They're only good for previewing the red and green salsas that sit on the table. The first is dark, rich, and just a bit smoky, and the other produces a clear, high tang that flames and vanishes. You'll need them to accent everything you order.
The tacos, too, are just fine. The tiny tortillas are simply put on the plate to convey bites of meat or vegetables, onions, and salsa to your mouth. You can get yours topped with braised, shredded chicken; grilled steak; sautéed mushrooms or squash blossoms; a slow-cooked, spice-free shredded beef; or chewy, chile-stewed al pastor (pork) with little chunks of pineapple. Most of the filings are pretty tasty, none quite so world-shattering as the meats across the street at my favorite taco truck, El Ojo de Agua.
But El Huarache's strength isn't the filling, it's the wrapper. Each antojito, whatever its shape, is cooked precisely, sauced conservatively, and presented demurely. Delicate hands sprinkle a crumble of white queso fresco here, a tiny pile of shaved lettuce there, with the same precision that they might place a tangle of microgreens or a swirl of sauce.
For example, the restaurant's quesadillas aren't much like those greasy jack-oozing behemoths you find at most places. Here they're made with an uncooked corn tortilla that is folded over and pinched into a half-moon as both masa and filling bake and crisp on the griddle. The cheese inside is a curdy, slightly salty queso fresco. Sautéed huitlacoche -- the hauntingly flavored, jet-black fungus that grows on corn -- spilled out of mine. It was mixed with fresh corn kernels, and a Mexico City-born dining companion pronounced the huitlacoche both authentic and delicious.
Exhibit two: Gorditas. Thick tortillas the size of sand dollars are sliced in half so that they form a pocket. The outside is griddled so a fine, firm crust develops and the inside becomes cakey-tender. The cooks smear a fine layer of refried beans in the center of the pocket, just to deepen the flavor, and add a couple spoonfuls of either chicharron (pork rind) or shredded beef and potatoes. A little lettuce, a little salsa, a little lime, and it's la bomba hydrogena.
The sopes look like little taco pizzas. They're as big as a man's palm, almost as thick as a gordita, and have raised sides so they encapsulate a saucy filling. Mine held chicharron, as meaty as lard but not quite as fatty, stewed in a roasted-chile sauce. Queso fresco and lettuce finished it off. Well, actually, I finished it off.
As El Huarache's name suggests, the specialty of the house is the huaraches. These meal-size antojitos are meant to look like the sandals they're named after: size-twelve sopes with fat, wide rims. The plain huarache, much better than it might read on paper, is topped with meaty refried beans, onions, lettuce, sour cream, and queso fresco. There's an even larger Huarache Azteca -- the entrée, not the restaurant -- that piles on nopales and grilled steak, too.
El Huarache Azteca -- the restaurant, not the entrée -- is not your standard-issue taqueria. Someone spent serious bucks on the decor, which looks like Mexican pottery, all in browns, beiges, and terra-cottas. From one wall, a panoramic, beautifully wrought mural of indigenous Mexican peasants looks down at you, and an Aztec warrior, all fur and feathers, nobly stares out from across the room. On my weekday-night visit the room stayed largely empty, and the masa guardians looked a little forlorn, as if they'd dressed up for a party everyone else ditched.
The next Saturday, the room came alive. All the tables were covered in tortilla baskets, plates, and cups of horchata -- a beer and wine license is pending -- being downed by Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. Strollers were parked alongside half the tables. Everyone seemed to be there for the weekend specials, like tamales, menudo, and barbacoa.
Barbacoa isn't everyday fare, either. The traditional way to make it, according to cookbook author Rick Bayless, is to wrap a whole lamb in banana or maguey leaves and to place it on a rack over a pot of water and vegetables. Then everything is sealed into a burning-hot pit. The lamb roasts, smokes, and steams at the same time, and its juices drip into the pot of water and become lamb broth.
Here you order the barbacoa by the pound, and it comes wrapped in a bundle of parchment and foil, with a plate of cilantro and onions and a basket of chunky handmade tortillas alongside. Open your packet, and a fragrant steam emerges. Clumps of creamy white fat ornament many of the chunks of lamb, but it can be stripped off with a finger. Then you pile the lamb up in the center of your tortilla, sprinkle on the onion and cilantro -- a little salsa roja if you'd like as well -- and roll it into a cigar. God, is it tender, and just a little smoky, without a hint of gaminess. All it needs is salt.
The thing you have to have with your barbacoa is a bowl of the lamb consommé, a small cup of clear broth with barely a drop of fat suspended on top. Roasted green and red chiles float in the bowl, along with chickpeas and tiny slivers of lamb. My companions, who have eaten all over Mexico, immediately reached for the cilantro, onion, and key limes, but I took a few sips of the broth naked, and it reminded me of pho: light but potent, with just a hint of that vegetal sweetness that peeks out of soups when you don't cover it up with salt and aromatics.
However, El Huarache's pozole, another weekend special, is meant to be adulterated. Once the big bowl of crimson broth arrived, my dining companion spent several minutes doctoring it up -- fresh lettuce, radishes, cilantro, white onions, the juice of a couple tiny key limes -- before pushing the bowl over to me. The broth wasn't a complex affair -- mostly chicken, onion, and pureed red chiles. But it started off with a pucker and ended with a glow. Everything between -- crisp lettuce, chewy hominy, velvety meat, and crunchy, acrid onions -- was an interplay of marvelous textures. And texture seems to be what a meal of a dozen different antojitos is all about.