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A tale of two tacos

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In his 2020 book “American Taco,” José R. Ralat uses the Abuelita Principle to explain the quest for “authenticity” when it comes to tacos in the United States. Americans have a bad habit, Ralat says, of comparing every taco they try to the exemplary ones made by a dearly departed grandmother or a long-remembered Juárez hole in the wall.

But, really, every recipe evolves along with its environment. Even a taco as iconic to Mexico as al pastor was shaped by the influence of Middle Eastern immigrants.

It’s easier to embrace culinary adaptation, no matter what the cuisine, over any Abuelita Principles. And in Santa Fe, two food trucks – Fusion Tacos and Saya’s Frybread & Indian Tacos – are currently churning out a couple of perfectly delicious examples.

At Fusion Tacos, the red truck parked in front of Garcia Tires on Airport Road, owner Perla Ramon has capitalized on a hot food trend that caught fire last year in Southern California and is now sweeping the Southwest – birria tacos. Birria refers to the preparation of stewed meat (traditionally goat or lamb, though Ramon’s tacos use beef) that is slow-cooked in an earth oven, a style that originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco before it was evolved by Tijuana and Los Angeles vendors in Dutch ovens or slow cookers. Birria tacos bear a distinctive burnt-orange glaze, the result of brushing stuffed corn tortillas with rich, meaty birria broth before crisping them on the griddle.

Fusion Tacos’ quesabirria tacos (cheese and beef) are served with a cup of the same silky broth for dipping purposes. After sharing a family pack (10 tacos for $20 on Taco Tuesdays, with a 16-ounce cup of cilantro-flecked consommé, lime wedges, shredded cabbage, fiery red and green salsas, and two sodas), I thoroughly understand why images of these tacos have been marching across my social media for months – they’re insanely good.

“Who doesn’t love a good dunk?” I thought in a George Costanza tone, dipping a crunchy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside meat-and-queso missile into its accompanying broth, not minding the juices that ran down my chin. I thought fondly of Philippe’s French dip sandwiches in LA, wondering if it was perhaps a Mexican cook who originated the roast beef baguettes served with a cup of dipping broth.

Fusion has leaned hard into its name with a menu that is equally decadent (more tacos, tortas, burritos) and healthy (salads, protein bowls, and even a breakfast lineup that includes a keto bowl and a “protein waffle”). But once it gets a bit colder, I’ll be back in line for something even more evolved: the ramen birria, which pairs the same beef and its broth with a cup of noodles.

Saya’s Frybread Indian Tacos food truck is parked in the lot of O’Reilly Auto Parts on Cerrillos Road. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

Over the past month or so, Santa Fe social media has been salivating over the arrival of a more local fusion food: Saya’s Frybread & Indian Tacos. The snazzy new turquoise truck, parked outside O’Reilly Auto Parts on Cerrillos Road, bills itself as “Santa Fe’s first and only Native American food truck.”

Chef-owner James Kailahi, whose mother is from San Ildefonso Pueblo, explained his reasoning for starting the truck by saying, “Santa Fe is filled with such extraordinary food from all over the world. And yet we’re surrounded by Native America and there’s not one Native American eating establishment. It makes no sense.”

Before starting up the truck for its soft opening in Pojoaque, Kailahi cooked and served for years at several area restaurants. He credits chef Clay Bordan of the former Tabla de los Santos at the St. Francis Hotel for his mentorship, though his mother taught him how to make red chile. (“Saya” is a Tewa word that refers to the eldest woman in the family.) In perfecting his Indian taco recipe, he worked with both his mom and his wife Medina, who was born and raised in San Ildefonso, to get all the elements exactly right.

But he also looked at Indian tacos across the country, trying to figure out how to make the best possible portable meal. Anyone who’s ever sat on a curb during Indian Market and used a plastic fork to eat an enormous frybread taco knows the unwieldy struggle.

“Let’s be real, it’s a hassle to eat an Indian taco,” Kailahi says. “You have to fight with it and, by the time you’re halfway, you’re either tired or don’t want to eat any more.”

Saya’s serves an Indian taco ($10) that solves the burden of heavy or soggy frybread – Kailahi’s is both crispy and light as air – by dicing the base into handy bite-size pieces. This way, every single forkful includes all ingredients: soft pintos, tangy red chile-marinated ground beef, grated cheddar, diced tomatoes and onions, shredded lettuce and frybread. It’s a taco salad of sorts, substantial enough for two meals – and Kailahi’s frybread is so good that it’s worth having a pillowy piece for dessert with honey or powdered sugar ($5). Saya’s also serves a mean version of another fusion food classic: Frito pie ($7).

As coronavirus cases spike across New Mexico, the idea of dining out requires more thought and care than ever. What’s worth going out for? What can’t you make in your kitchen, and what’s safe to grab and take home? Birria and Indian tacos are at the top of my current list, and these two trucks are set to make wintry treks down Airport and Cerrillos that much more delicious.

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