All The Things I Eat

A White Guy Cooks Chicken Tinga Tacos

By on Wednesday, February 9th, 2022 at 4:39 pm

Tinga chicken meat in sauce

As a kid, we regularly had tacos from an Ortega taco kit: hard shells, seasoning, and packets of taco sauce. The beef was not included. I refer to these as 1980s Taco Night. We ate tacos with shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, and sour cream. On extra special nights, we also had had Tostitos chips and salsa. Nothing screams mid-90s quite like Tostito’s brand packaging with the bright pink and aquamarine blue.

Today, hard tacos filled with ground beef flavored with “taco seasoning” packets taste like crunchy nostalgia. They are a rare treat in part because my wife doesn’t share the same sentimentality. I could find them at El Cortez, a tiki themed bar a few blocks away serving All American Taco Night, a perfect replica of those 1980s-style tacos, but the bar shut down a few years ago. What I really liked about them as an adult was how simple they are to cook — and no doubt why my mother liked them when I was a kid. Sauté some ground beef, toss in the seasoning, and twenty minutes later dinner is on the table.

As a grown up, I mostly eat Mexican-style tacos. Bushwick, Brooklyn has a wide variety on offer. I know there’s some guy from L.A. or Texas lurking out there ready to tell me how inferior Brooklyn tacos are. I accept your challenge.

First, I can’t talk about Bushwick tacos without mentioning Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, the tortilla factory in the heart of hipster (bourgeois) Bushwick that now attracts European tourists and finance bros from Manhattan. These tacos are perfectly fine. I have to admit that a decade ago, they were one of my earlier experiences with Mexican-style street tacos. But they were less memorable than Taqueria El Fogon, a restaurant on Flushing Ave, or Mesa Azteca, taqueria that looks like it could be a movie set. These are all decent tacos, even if they are overhyped.

One of my favorite spots has since closed. Taqueria Izucar, named after the Puebla city Izucar de Matamoros, squeezed under the elevated tracks of the M. There was a counter and maybe two barstools, but they had big flavor. It had irregular hours, making it difficult to plan a trip. The tacos, wrapped in double white corn tortillas, were inexpensive but delicious. The taco to get here was the Suadero taco, a kind of smooth muscle beef flank that was also fried.

The alternative I went to the day I realized Taqueria Izucar had closed for good was Taquiera Acatlan, also under the elevated tracks. A woman in the window of the store spends her day pressing out fresh corn tortillas with the finesse and skill of a master craftsman. I haven’t been back since the pandemic, but the beef tongue was quite good if memory serves correctly.

For the last year, a Taco Bite, a food truck has been parking nearby on Bushwick Avenue several nights week providing late night service for patrons of the popular warehouse district clubs. The trucks has a standard taco menu too with the expected carnitas and al pastor and chorizo, but I’m more likely to have a Cemitas or Torta sandwich. The truck has never disappointed me.

The newer taco restaurants are fancier. They appeal to a younger, hipper crowd. I order from them because they offer delivery and are close enough the tacos arrive hot, most of the time. Our go-to delivery since the pandemic started has been El Santo, on Flushing, or Taco Edition, on Grand Street. Both offer standards like al pastor, bistec, chorizo, carnitas — and typically I would order two or three of those. I do also experiment with goat, lamb, tongue, fish, and shrimp, but tacos are a kind of comfort food, and sometimes you just want familiarity.

Luckily, tacos are a low stakes game. They aren’t expensive, and most of the time I’m order more than one. More recently, I’ve been ordering chicken tinga tacos. Tinga tacos are spicy, pulled chicken.

Chicken tinga’s main ingredients are tomatoes, chipotle peppers in adobo, and onions. There are some variations on this depending on the region, and different spices to adjust the flavor. Tinga originates around Puebla, Mexico with the first record recipes from the early 19th century. However, the combination of ingredients likely dates back long before the arrival of Europeans.

I finally decided to make my own.

A big Le Creuset filled with chicken tinga meat finished simmering and reducing the volume of chicken stock

There were a few reasons I wanted to try my hand at chicken tinga tacos. I’m much more likely to make carnitas style tacos, but to do it properly requires hours of braising. And usually, braising a big piece of pork yields a huge amount of shredded meat. That’s great for a party, but not great for a pandemic. Experimenting with tinga tacos seemed like a good idea since I could better control duration and volume.

I consulted a few recipes from Food & Wine, Gimme Some Oven, and Punch of Yum. Mostly I wanted to confirm the rough ratios of ingredients and the suggested spices–-in this case, cumin and oregano. None of the ingredients were difficult to come by, and after a quick trip to the grocery store, I was ready to go.

I started by poaching a couple of chicken breasts. I hadn’t shredded poach chicken before last week when I was making Mala chicken salad using an Omsom sauce packet I had received for Christmas. I liked the texture of the poached, shredded chicken, and how quickly the breasts cooked. It seemed perfect for making tinga quickly.

After putting the chicken in its hot bath, I set about pickling some red onions using lime juice, garlic, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and a few pieces of hot pepper. These were fast pickles, but there are leftovers getting more pickled right now, and I can’t wait to to use them on something else.

Then I set out to the sauce. Weeknight meals are a sloppy, quick affair these days, squeezed in after baby’s bedtime. I chopped up the remains of the red onion, threw in some garlic, two chipotle peppers, the cumin, oregano, and tomatoes and blended them with a wand mixer. Wand mixers are notoriously dangerous, and honestly it was my first time using one. It kind of felt like holding an industrial strength vibrator with deadly blades spinning on the bottom like some kind of German fetish toy. Safe word: spicy.

The wand mixer went pretty well until the bulky wand tipped over the lightweight plastic jar spilling half the sauce. A huge red mess ensued covering the countertop, baby food maker, dish sponge, coffee pot, electric tea kettle — the whole place looked like a murder scene. Luckily I had reserved some of the tomatoes and chipotle peppers, but the spill had thrown off the resulting ratios.

After remaking the sauce and blending it all together, I added it to our big pot with some chicken stock. It’s worth noting that the recipes I consulted suggested starting the garlic and onion in the oil before blending it all together. However, I was going for speed, but to be honest I don’t think it had a huge impact on flavor. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have spilled half the sauce with the wand mixer if it was all in the giant dutch oven.

As the sauce simmered, I took the poached chicken out of the hot chicken water and shredded it with two forks. Once it was separated and stringy, I tossed this into the simmering sauce with a bit more stock. In about ten minutes most of the liquid boiled off into a thicker tinga sauce.

I also found some time to make a bowl of guacamole, served alongside the tacos. I had cotija cheese for garnish. I cooked my white flour tortillas and was ready to go.

In the end, cooking my own chicken tinga proved far easier than it ever was in my mind. There was no slow braise or complicated measuring. Other than spilling the sauce, preparing the tinga was a straight forward process, not all that more complicated than opening up an Ortega brand taco seasoning pack and pouring it over some ground beef.

The finished tacos with pickled red onions and cotija cheese

How To Build a Sandwich (That Doesn’t Suck)

By on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022 at 7:43 pm

Apparently, not everyone knows how to build a good sandwich.

Last week, a poll came through on my group text chat: “when applying mustard to a sandwich with turkey, cheese, and lettuce, do you apply on one piece of bread or both pieces?”

Mustard? On your bread? That’s a red flag.

Here’s the thing: except in some rare exceptions like the French Dip or the Chicagoland Italian Beef, bread should not be soggy. Too many sandwich ingredients add moisture and bread acts like a sponge. Good sandwich construction can stop that.

Early sandwiches didn’t have to worry about soggy bread. These rather simple combinations were mostly made of a single filling, like a meat or a cheese. There was no toppings, no sauces, not even mingling meat and cheese on the same sandwich.

There is a pervasive mythology surrounding the history of the sandwich, mainly that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich invented it during a card game. The Earl, goes the story, wanting to continue gambling, ordered a servant to bring him bread with meat squeezed between it. The creation of the sandwich, however, might have had more do with his work ethic than a penchant for gambling. The earl was a notorious workaholic, and a sandwich would have allowed him to continue working at his desk late into the night.

The Earl’s early sandwich appeared in the mid-18th Century. The term then was bandied about mostly to mean a meat between two pieces of bread with tongue one of the more popular fillings. Sandwiches only became more than that in the mid 19th century when the English society women began serving high tea, a midday snack.

Tea sandwiches are delicate creations. They had the crusts of the bread sliced off and the light fillings. These were snacks meant to bide aristocrats over between luncheon and dinner. Fillings like cucumbers thus came into style. But these tea-time snacks remained simple and their filling layer thin.

The sandwich, like so many other great foods, only really evolved into an art form once it arrived in New York City. Over the course of a dozen years around the turn of the 19th century, sandwich consumption exploded in New York, as did the variety. The theater critic George Jean Nathan began cataloging New York’s sandwiches in the 1920s and found nearly a thousand varieties, some including such silly fillings as spaghetti, while the theater district restaurants served sandwiches with obscene amounts of filling measured by the inch.

Sandwiches also grew popular in automats during the 20th century. These self-service restaurants sprung up around the city, especially at rail stations where people were on the move or in districts where people were out late at night. Food was placed in a cubby behind a glass door so customers could see the selection. The doors were coin-operated: insert a nickel, take the food. Without wait staff, the food prices were kept low. Automats offered everything from hot food to pies, but the rise of the sandwich industrial complex owes much of its success to the ease of the automat dining.

Meanwhile, one of the other big cultural shifts in that era was taking place at work. Women now worked in offices as stenographers and secretaries and telephone operators. Out of the house, they needed a place to eat. However, many of the stodgy 19th century restaurants refused to serve unaccompanied women.

A new kind of restaurant was needed and so evolved the lunch counter. These places, like Shrafft’s, became go-to spots for professional women looking to eat out. Lunch counters catered specifically to them with discounts of food, and portions often seen as too small for men. Sandwiches became an important menu item, especially as a lighter (cheaper) option.

The lunch counters helped make salad sandwiches popular. Homemakers in the 19th century were accustomed to mixing leftover proteins like meat and fish with pickles and mayonnaise into a salad ensuring even food scraps could be turned into edible calories. The lunch counters turned these well-known foods into sandwiches by sticking the filling between two pieces of bread. The tuna salad, chicken salad, and egg salad sandwiches were all created to appeal to these working women who now had lunch breaks from their office jobs.

That brings us to the great egg salad sandwich fiasco of 1933 that nearly killed my grandfather. Wilbur Mac Allen worked at Dun & Bradstreet, an analytics and data company. Dun had just merged with Bradstreet that spring, but at the end of August, catastrophe struck their Manhattan office.

On the morning of August 24, the cafeteria served egg salad sandwiches selling them for a nickel each. By 1 pm, staff began complaining of stomachaches and pains. Two hours later, one woman screamed out before collapsing on her typewriter, and eventually some 200 employees were sickened. “Chaos had displaced order on the fourteen floors,” wrote the local suburban newspaper, The Ridgewood Herald. More than twenty doctors and ten ambulances were sent to the firm, and the 40 employees who had gone home early were telegrammed warnings. My grandfather Wilbur was one of the 30 employees taken the hospital.

The key to a good salad sandwich — other than not letting the mayonnaise spoil in a hot, August morning — is a barrier between the bread and the wet fillings. The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, an early American cookery book, suggests spreading creamed butter across the slices of bread before layering in fillings. Most classic salad sandwiches also include lettuce, and that’s not just so you consider it a salad. The lettuce also acts as a barrier, too.

A sandwich is a layered food, ingredients stacked on ingredients, with ends and a middle. Each layer imparts flavor, but the structure of the sandwich matters.

Begin by laying the bread face down, with the bottom of each piece touching the other. This position makes it easier to flip one on top of the other, and match the shape. If you are using a round roll, like in the chart below, there you can have a perfect match every time.

Add a layer of mayonnaise to both sides of the bread. Butter will also work. Both are high fat foods that will serve as a barrier between moisture and the bread.

Next, if you eat cheese, add a layer to both sides. Again, the cheese will act as a moisture barrier.

Now we’re approaching the central layers. Next add the protein. Usually the protein is only added to one side of the sandwich because of the high calorie count, strong flavor, and that it will typically be the most expensive ingredient. American deli meats will typically have added water, making them a wet ingredient. (Cured meats like prosciutto and salami, relatively dry and high in fat, and will act like a barrier).

Layer on lettuce and other greens. These are providing texture and crispiness. Be sure to wash and then dry them before placing them on the sandwich. Finally, dead center in the sandwich, add the wettest ingredients — fresh tomatoes, pickles, relish, sauces — anything that has a high amount of water.

Flip one sandwich half over on the other, and now you have a sandwich that won’t get soggy.

How to correctly assemble a sandwich to avoid soggy bread

Beef Tacos

By on Monday, August 27th, 2012 at 4:48 pm

I never expected to find a combination taco / pita restaurant.

And yet that explains Pita Palace, a late night restaurant in East Williamsburg serving up fine middle eastern food and authentic tacos.

The tacos were decent for 2a.m., although heavy on the lettuce.

Bushwick Pita Palace
243 Bushwick Avenue

Deep Fried Cheeseburger

By on Friday, August 24th, 2012 at 5:16 am

I visited a friend in Ohio and all I got was this deep fried cheeseburger.

What is it about American midwestern cuisine that requires everything touch the deep frier? Don’t think I’m complaining, I’m just saying, that’s how it is.

I tried to look up the restaurant where I ate this artery clogger, but I couldn’t find the place because so many bars in Columbus, Ohio were offering their own deep fried cheeseburger.

Truth be told, I was expecting more. I wanted the beef to be tender with globs of hot cheese melting from the inside, like a rice ball where the rice has been substituted for ground beef. No such luck, apparently.

The exterior was a bit crispier than an ordinary burger, and other than the extra grease, there wasn’t anything all that special about this burger.

Brisket Taco

By on Wednesday, August 15th, 2012 at 5:25 am

Brisket taco

This taco filled was with brisket meat.

Beef brisket is ordinarily filled with flavor, but you wouldn’t really know it from the taco overflowing with lettuce and a heavy spoon of guacamole.

Still, as far as a beef taco goes, the brisket was moist and tender, a problem of many steak tacos. The brisket fell apart more like a pork taco but with the richness of beef.

Mexicue taco truck ny

Mexicue truck