Or: how to give in to placer
Gustavo Arellano would rather stick hot churros in his eyes than witness another Mexican dish anointed by the food-blogger industrial complex. The writer of the bitingly funny and incisive OC Weekly column “¡Ask a Mexican!” spent part of February spitting invective toward a hapless Eater Austin writer who dared argue that Texas’s capital birthed the breakfast taco. “Oh yeah, that,” Arellano demurs. “What a shit show.” He’s fond of dropping “gabacho” in print, a term for anglos that’s infinitely more lacerating than “gringo.” And yet here we are discussing a little-known taco preparation for a new website about… breakfast.
“Hey, good luck with that,” he offers.
Arellano’s warm wishes flow in two directions: toward Extra Crispy, of course, and toward finding examples nationwide of our gut-busting quarry, the taco placero.
It starts with a hand-formed tortilla of corn flour and shortening, the golden mortar of sopes, huaraches, and gorditas. Layered on top are the usual taquería suspects: meat of your choice, seared jalapeños, sliced avocado, yellow rice, maybe a couple strips of mild panela cheese. But that’s when the big guns of breakfast come in. Flattop-griddled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs reinforce what is already a brick-solid morning meal. The taco placero can be as voluminous as a Mission burrito, yet it eats nothing like one. And it’s elusive as fuck.
“The only place in the United States where people will know about them is Puebla York or Santa Ana, here in southern California, where poblanos live,” Arellano says. He would know. His 2013 book Taco USA is a Rosetta Stone of Mexican-food arcana. Among its insights is that Rick Bayless, America’s foremost practitioner of “elevated” Mexican cuisine, has thin skin. Also, what gabacho chefs like Bayless often presume are obscure, unappreciated dishes with no credible representation in the U.S. get cooked every day, and ably, in Mexican neighborhoods nationwide.
The taco placero, however, is underground even by Arellano’s standards. Asked if he could recommend any spots in Santa Ana that served it, he says, “None that are legal. You got to go to someone’s house on the weekend.”
That leaves “Puebla York,” the nickname owing to the roughly 600,000 people living in the metro area with roots in the central Mexican state. Before we go there, though, we have to go south—2,500 miles south.
Pleasurable though they are to eat, tacos placeros have no nominal connection to placer, the Spanish word for “pleasure.” The modifier derives from “plaza,” or any open space where street vendors might ply their trade. In their native Puebla, tacos placeros are prepared and consumed in town squares and covered markets. If they have a spiritual home, it is Atlixco, a valley city roughly 20 miles southwest of the capital, in the shadow of 17,800-foot Popocatépetl.
Tacos placeros have no strict ingredient checklist, nor do they figure at any one mealtime; integral to the placero’s identity is its utter lack of one. A poblano vendor might layer in French fries or grilled nopál (cactus). Puebla’s Spanish-language tourism bureau website states that a placero might be filled with shredded chicken, a nopál-and-egg combo, tongue sausage and egg, stewed pork skins with red or green salsa, pork ribs in adobo, or anything that might be ready at hand. Other Spanish-language sources name cecina—salted, dried, pounded and grilled beef—as the meaty filling of choice. No bother; they’re all good. And they’re all prepared by women.
To hear Diana Popoca tell it, the taco placero’s low profile stateside correlates to the few women working flattops at New York’s numerous poblano-owned delis. “It’s very labor-intensive,” she says of the preparation. Popoca is the head line cook at Brooklyn’s Puebla de los Angeles Deli, located in the nebulous neighborhood between heavily poblano Sunset Park and heavily bearded South Park Slope. “Men are too lazy,” she says, eyes twinkling mischievously. Her griddle is a-sizzle with takeout orders of sopes, tortas, and, yes, tacos placeros. “You need to get the potatoes ready, to pound out the tortilla, to slice the avocado fresh. It’s too much for them. Only women would do it.”
Does she get many requests for tacos placeros in the morning? “All day long,” she says. “Not many places cook them, but we do.” Before detoxing in the drunk tank one night, you may want to commandeer a taco placero de chile relleno, which positions a batter-fried poblano pepper filled with queso fresco in the tortilla, along with all the fixins.
It being morning, however, I order one with cecina and ask for the egg fried rather than hard-boiled. Accompanied by a generous cup of salsa verde rendered cool and smooth by avocado, the placero is unwieldy enough to justify the napkin-wrapped plastic fork at its side. But befitting a dish that shuns orthodoxy, there’s no right way to eat it. The important thing is that it be eaten.
New York, NY
Puebla de Los Angeles Deli
722 5th Ave
The King of Tacos
90-17 31st Ave
Los Angeles, CA
“Where people are partying or playing soccer or hanging out in Santa Ana, you’ll find them.” – Gustavo Arellano
Cemitas Poblanas Mi Magdalena
401 S. Indiana St.
Los Angeles, CA
Jonathan Schultz scribbles about cars, food, product design and travel from his home in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.