August 30th, 2013 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (2)
Raw hamburger taco? Oh yes please! I thought I’d try just a bite, a tiny tiny bite, for the novelty, but here I am eating raw burger taco and loving it, bite after bite and I just can’t stop. Can barely stop even when a huge basalt bowl brimming with delicious chow diverts my attention.
What would Howard Roark say? Lately I’ve been reading “The Fountainhead” and, to my surprise, despite my prejudice against Ayn Rand and despite her relentlessly middlebrow and turgid writing style, loving it. I’d expected to find a defense of obnoxious egotism and instead discovered a plea for artistic integrity. The rare person who is gifted with the divine flame of artistic genius (here it’s an architect but it could be a chef) has, not rights, but duties and obligations. He must foster this flame and be true to it. He must not sell out, prostitute his talent for riches or power; if he does, it’s a sin. (And so Roark, spurned by a society that doesn’t appreciate him, lives in poverty.) And even those lucky enough not to be gifted with this one in a million talent should be true to themselves, follow their heart, not let society grind them down. Sounds like a romantic starry-eyed cliche? Maybe today it is, but I’ve never heard it expressed before 1943 (when Rand wrote), except perhaps in the works of Goethe (in fact in ALL Goethe’s works, including Faust, Werther, and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) and some of his contemporary German romantics.
But the food at El Centenario, though worthy of a genius chef, was not created thus. The recipes evolved over the ages, the product of a rich and alien culture long ago and far away. That huge basalt bowl has been in use for over two millennia. It would be interesting to trace the evolution of recipes. To some extent Claude Levi-Strauss tried, related it to unconscious impulses and aversions (the same motivating aversions and compulsions that are exaggerated in OCD, as described in “Motherless Brooklyn”, Jonathan Lethem’s wonderful novel of a hard-boiled private eye with Tourette’s), and though Levi-Strauss was more concerned with the diffusion and variation of myths and folk tales, he did give one of his books the very appropriate title “The Raw and the Cooked”. He wouldn’t be surprised that Mexicans gave the raw meat taco the name of a culture alien to them; it’s called Carne Apache.
Enough of the chitchat, let’s step inside and eat. The guy in the baseball cap is the chef, he kept stealing glances at me to see if I would eat the taco. So let’s have a look at this famous taco.
It’s basically a meat ceviche. (And it’s $2.75) Like the fish in a ceviche, the ground meat has been marinated in lime juice, and that citric broth “cooks” the meat, turns it grey, and gives it a sprightly fresh taste, accented by onions, cilantro, red peppers, and that delicious avocado. (It doesn’t kill germs though, so this raw meat dish is risky business.) Carne Apache originates in the Pátzcuaro region of Michoacán in central Mexico, and may have been created by that region’s P’urhépecha people (they were contemporaries, and rivals, of the Aztecs). Anyway, it’s delicious, and if you didn’t know it’s raw you’d never guess.
My favorite dish of the night was created by those rival Aztecs, since the name of the dish derives from an Aztec word (actually, a Nahuatl word): Molcajete. The molcajete is a huge dish, a mortar actually, made from porous volcanic rock, and it has been known in Mexico for at least 2000 years. When not used to grind something, it doubles as a cooking vessel. It retains heat so it’s also used for serving, as here. (It also retains germs, so it’s risky too.) It’s $13.50 and that includes rice, refried beans, and a stack of corn tortillas.
And here it is, filled to the brim with shrimp, a big spicy burger patty (yes, cooked) something like a Turkish Adana kebab, a huge tasty piece of cactus leaf, white cheese (!), sliced beef and diced chicken, all permeated by a delicious broth redolent of fresh herbs that I couldn’t identify but vaguely reminiscent of fresh thyme and rosemary. I shared it with my friends but it was so good I wanted to eat it all. Later, when I put the photo on Facebook, two top chefs from two of Tulsa’s finest restaurants wrote that they love El Centenario’s molcajete; “one of my favorite things in Tulsa!!” wrote one. And here I thought I was a pioneer.
We ordered two more dishes to round out the meal. Above is a “Super Wet Burrito” ($7). Cathe didn’t like it, but I asked for extra sour cream, lathered it on, and thought it almost as good as Rio Verde. We also got cheese enchiladas ($6).
I was so busy with the molcajete I never got to try any.
Mariscos El Centenario
1744 S. Garnett
Brian Schwartz: Author
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.
Tags: Mexican Food