TAQUERIA LOS OCAMPO #4
809 E. Lake St., Minneapolis
I had been to the newest, shiniest Los Ocampo half a dozen times and was pretty well smitten, yet still afraid to bring friends there. The problem was this: I knew they would ask me what was good, and how to navigate the overwhelmingly long menu, but despite repeated visits, I had no good answer to either of those questions.
"It's overwhelming," I cautioned the first friend I brought. "Whatever you do, just don't get on line until you know what you want, because a lot of people are going to come in behind you and want your stammering Americano carcass out of their way, and you'll get flustered, and you'll order the wrong thing, or not enough, and regret it all day."
You see, the newest and, in my thinking, best Los Ocampo, which has taken over the old Carne Asada space on the busy corner of Lake and Chicago, is a spotless, tile-floored place with a posted menu of some 30 dishes and combo platters, and while all are usefully translated into English, the effort doesn't much help: There's the thick, fresh corn masa tortilla folded in half with choice of meat; the large, fresh corn masa tortilla stuffed with your choice of meat; the large, oval, filled masa cake stuffed with your choice of meat; the round masa cake topped with your choice of meat; the oval-shaped fried masa cake stuffed with your choice of...you get the idea.
My friend and I finally ordered. He got a huaracazo combo ($9, with rice and beans) with chicarron prensado. For this they make a fresh masa cake as big as the sole of a man's shoe (hence the name, after huarache), stuff it with refried beans, top it with a choice of meat—in this case smoked pork in a red chile sauce—and then add fresh slices of avocado, lettuce, radish, and squirts of Mexican crema. It's just a whammy of a dish. The masa cake at the bottom is creamy and crispy, the meat is smoky and subtle, the fresh toppings add a vibrancy and lightness that keeps you coming back to the plate time and time again.
"Wow," my friend kept murmuring. "Wow, wow, wow. This is my new favorite Lake Street Mexican place." Yup, mine too. I got a gordita ($4), a fresh masa cake about an inch thick, well griddled and crispy on the outside, creamy inside, split down the middle, and filled with tinga de pollo—chicken in a chipotle sauce.
A few bites in, my friend discovered the three complimentary salsas, one a creamy, green, puréed avocado sauce with a potent amount of heat; another a milder tomatillo salsa; the third a smoky red chile salsa. As a group, they're hotter and purer than most salsas you run into, and they turbocharge the accompanying creamy masa dishes, super-powering them across the line that separates the merely delicious restaurants from the ones you force your friends into going to at midnight. "Be sure to tell them about the sauce," urged my friend. "These sauces are just incredible." I agreed. However, my problem remained. I understand salsas—telling you about the salsas was no problem. The real problem, explaining the mystery and mastery of Los Ocampo, remained.
It took a new book to finally open my eyes: Nicholas Gilman's Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas, and Fine Dining (iUniverse, $13.95, available through most booksellers and at www.mexicocityfood.net). The key was in one small word concealed in Los Ocampo's logo: antojitos. Antojitos, explains Gilman in his book, "refers to a food category, not a dish.... Its meaning (literally 'before the eyes') can vary, but it usually refers to corn-based appetizers, anything made with tortillas or masa de maiz (corn dough). They are eaten as a light meal or snack (although they can often be quite filling). Some of the most common antojitos found in Mexico City are quesadillas, tlacoyos, gorditas, sopes, panuchos, tacos, tamales, huaraches, and enchiladas."
Gilman explains that antojitos are one of the foods that connect modern Mexico City to the 6,000-year-old tradition of native corn-centered foodways. Tlacoyos, for instance, are probably nearly identical to foods eaten by the Aztecs in pre-conquest times.
I talked to Gilman on the phone to clear up a little more. Antojitos, he told me, play more or less the same role in Mexico City that slices of pizza do in New York. "You're walking down the street, you're hungry, it's the thing you grab, because someone is making some fresh just about wherever you go, in markets, at street stalls, at subway stations."
And how should one differentiate between all the shapes, sizes, and differences? Is it like pasta? I asked. Is the effective difference between a huarache and sopes essentially like that between linguine and fettuccine—something I shouldn't really worry my pretty little head about? "Exactly," Gilman told me. "When people are eating as much masa as we do here, logically all sorts of variations develop. Like pasta, it's the same ingredient over and over again, but the texture, the different forms and shapes make it taste different."
On subsequent visits to Los Ocampo I was riveted by the textural differences: The tlacoyo ($3.50)—in which the masa is combined with whole and mashed pinto beans and cheese, griddle-fried, and topped with radishes, lettuce, and crema—is rustic and rough-hewn, bristling with patches as crisp as potato chips on its lumpy exterior. Meanwhile, the gordita ($4), which quickly became a favorite with me, had almost polenta-like swaths of creaminess. The quesadilla—yes, even the quesadilla is good here—features a masa cake flattened and griddle-fried till the edges puff up like lace.
I know you think "quesadilla" and conjure up the bar-food staple of a grocery-store wheat tortilla sandwiched around some melted cheese, but the ones at Los Ocampo are so different it's like comparing chicken nuggets to a whole roast chicken. Order one here (solo, for $4, or with rice and beans for $8) and one of the many women behind the line molds some fresh masa into a disk, claps it into a press that flattens it into a pancake, griddles it, flips it, folds it around your choice of meat (or mushrooms and cheese if you ask for a vegetarian version), tucks fresh radish slices, lettuce, crema, and queso fresco into it, and presents you with something light, lively, and devourable. I got one once for a toddler with nothing in it but cheese and the thing was so pure, sweet, and yummy it could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with just about any appetizer in a white-tablecloth restaurant.
Of course, if plain isn't your bag, this Los Ocampo offers several versions of fancy, such as the huarache de costilla ($6.54), a long, flat, masa cake topped with a three- or four-bone section of pork ribs that have been cooked so long they are utterly gelatinous and meltingly tender. "These aren't just tender, they're plastic-fork tender, which means they're soup with bones," quipped my friend.
In addition to the various masa antojitos, Los Ocampo sells a handful of other classics, including two excellent versions of pozole ($7.95)—pork or chicken soup that, here, comes with two tostadas piled high with fresh avocado slices, crema, lettuce, and the works, plus a side of hot chiles, radishes, fresh onions, limes, and spicy red oil so you can flavor the soup to your liking.
"It's Mexican pho," marveled one friend I shared it with, making a particularly Minnesotan connection. Pho or no, this pozole is a great version: meaty, spicy, lemony, lively—in fact, it's so good I've seen tables of six men at Los Ocampo with six orders of pozole in front of them. The kitchen here is well equipped for takeout and is ringed by easy parking. If you live in south Minneapolis, this might be the find that transforms your winter.
For me, though, as great as the pozole is, I'm never going to be able to cross the threshold of Los Ocampo without ordering some antojito or other, and my advice is that if you only learn one new word in 2008, let this be it. I know, I know, you have limited brain space. So do I. But I promise you, even if you have to dump out the name of your kindergarten teacher, try to hold on to the word antojito. It opens up a whole new world of delicious.
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