Vegetarian Tacos, with Some Meat for Good Measure
When I was growing up, no taco night was complete without a giant bowl of soft avocado, mashed together with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro and surrounded by crunchy white corn chips. Meant only as an appetizer, I remember getting full off of it.
Usually, my dad was the official “guaca-salsa” maker. I liked to watch him slice the onions into tiny white flakes and the tomatoes into juicy chunks. Later, when I took over the job of guaca-salsa maker, I could never escape without at least two or three tomato squirts on the front of my shirt. Apparently, the higher the number of squirts, the better the tomatoes and the better the guaca-salsa.
The best place to shop for fresh ingredients was the farmers market in my hometown of San Luis Obispo, California. Every Thursday night, the downtown streets would be overtaken by hundreds of booths, offering everything from fresh produce and meat, to flowers and crafts, to a quick palm read or a cold beer. My favorite ingredient to purchase was the cilantro. Spicy and almost sweet, the strange clover-shaped cilantro was like a drug. I lingered, smelling each bundle one more time, trying to find the freshest, most pungent one.
Avocados were always plentiful in California. I used to drive past an avocado grove everyday on my way to junior college. Those avocados were the size of melons, pulling the dark green branches heavy to the ground. For our guaca-salsa, we usually bought the smaller ones, the ones that could fit in the palm of your hand. Testing them for ripeness could be tricky. Too soft and they wouldn’t keep for more than a day. Too hard and they could take a week or more to ripen. The one that was just right was usually toward the back of the pile, hiding, waiting. When I picked it up, I always knew, just gently squeezing it, that this was the one. It had to be a little firm, but soft enough to give into my fingers a little.
Sometimes, the tomatoes would come from our garden. Ripened by the sun and fresh-picked, they were warm and soft. Cutting them was tricky; they would often squash before they sliced. Using a very sharp knife worked the best, although it also heightened my mother’s concerns for my fingers.
All the ingredients assembled and mixed together, the guaca-salsa was ready. The first dip was always the best: the smooth avocado and juicy tomato, the crunch of the onions and the chips, the sweetness of the cilantro. It was truly a fiesta of flavors. Guaca-salsa was always best served on hot tacos. Little white tortillas filled to bursting with meat, lettuce, cheese, olives, and, of course, guaca-salsa.
When I was still living in Montana, before California and the plethora of avocados, my family ventured often to Los Amigos, the one and only local Mexican restaurant in our town. For being located high in the Montana Rockies, at least a thousand miles from the Mexican border, it wasn’t too bad. It was always cool inside and a little damp. The smooth red pottery walls and the almost overwhelming green foliage made it seem exotic.
Usually, I ordered the super-sized burrito with chicken and guacamole. It was almost the size of my leg (at least my leg at the time) and usually ended up in a “doggie” bag for a trip home. Sometimes my dad would set our budget higher and I could order my absolute favorite Mexican food item: fish tacos.
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