I’m no cook. I’ve burnt countless tortillas, overcooked dozens of steaks, and overheated thousands of blenders (OK, like, three). I’ve baked cakes with the consistency of a worn-out sponge and been responsible for prematurely ending the lives of various kitchen rags by having them catch fire after trying to grab hot pans from the stove. I can’t tell cilantro from arugula. I haven’t even tried to make rice, ‘cause I know my parents would miss me terribly if I died.
But one thing I am: an optimist. And I believe I can change for the better. And I knew I needed to get out there and prove that life is without limits; if I truly desired it, I could become a trompo master, a pastor-roasting whisperer, A TAQUERA...if only for a day. And so I did (sort of).
I arrived to Taco Mix, a legit Mexican joint in Harlem, to meet Miguel, a master taquero with over 15 years of experience. His skills knew no human boundaries: He was energetic and motivated, and HE was the inspiration I needed to learn the ancient art of making bomb tacos before the end of the day.
First, I had to get in my taquera attire. I put on a pair of white latex gloves, a hairnet, and an apron, and not only did I look the part, I FELT the part. Actually, I had never felt sexier in my life, and you know why? Because confidence is sexy. And at that moment, I was confident I would succeed!
Well, that feeling lasted for about 15 seconds and dwindled right about the time Miguel tried to teach me the first step of taco-making: how to heat up tortillas. I observed his technique: He moved like a bullet, grabbing handfuls of tortillas, attracting them into his palms with seemingly magnetic powers, dipping them in a mixed-meat broth and throwing them onto the grill, then flipping them twice and — bam! — off to the plato, ready to hold mouthwatering chunks of pastor meat.
I tried doing the same. Four burnt tortillas, a charbroiled glove, and 120 seconds later, my intuition told me Miguel knew he was in for a treat. And by treat, I mean nightmare.
Miguel took a long, hard look at me and my crooked hairnet, and I could tell what was going through his mind: Uh, no, esta güerita no va a dar. But TRUST ME, I WILL IBA A DAR, OK?! I WAS DETERMINED TO DAR. I was born and raised in Mexico, my dad is the best cook in the world, I knew I had the culinary spark in my genes, and I was going to prove it by serving a perfect taco that day.
I asked Miguel what skills I needed to become a good taquera. His answer? Patience and attentiveness. Patience to deal with demanding customers and attentiveness to make sure everyone’s orders are perfect.
Patience? Check. I’m GREAT at that. It’s hard to get me riled up. Attentiveness? Hmm, being that I’ve brushed my teeth with butt pomade before, I don’t know about that one. BUT DANGIT, I COULD TRY.
So what’s the biggest challenge about it? I asked Miguel. He stared into the (fairly close) horizon, right at the left corner of the restaurant, where the magnificent pastor spit gleamed and outshone everything around it. “Ese es el reto más grande, prepararlo desde el principio…y manejar el cuchillo." Miguel’s job includes marinating the pork meat with a very secret recipe from Mexico City and then actually building the trompo, stacking thinly cut slices on a skewer. The time came for me to come face-to-face with the trompo. But heck, I was ready to test my limits: Leslie versus the spit — who would win?!
I took to chopping (or merely gliding) the knife diagonally through the inverted mountain of goodness that stood before me. Tiny, useless chops of pastor fell into the abysm. Miguel probably realized this was going to be harder than he expected. He grabbed the knife and made vertical cuts, rhythmically and beautifully slicing perfect chunks of pastor onto the tortillas. “Así, Leslie." OK, OK. I tried again. I improved my technique around 20%, if not 21%, but I don’t want to brag. I’m positive that with just a few more days, or possibly years, of practicing, I’d totally nail it.
People were walking into the restaurant. Things started to get crazy. I had to give up the knife; I simply couldn’t keep up the pace. My new duty became to serve as the wizard of garnishing. Sure, I didn’t do it with Miguel’s otherworldly energy, but mind you, I excelled at it (probably because it was just really, really easy). I dusted onions and cilantro on the tacos like it was nobody’s business. I, master garnisher extraordinaire, was living proof that life knows no limits — one can learn something new and immediately kick ass at it! (Again, it was just super easy, but whatever! I'm a success story!)
There was one feat I just couldn’t attempt, a frontier I couldn't surpass. At the cusp of the trompo sat a peeled pineapple, which is meant to crown the taco in an immaculate way. BUT slicing it in a half second and having it free fall right on the plate seemed like a daunting mission. I watched Miguel; there was an art to it, a perfectly timed wielding of the knife. “Miguel, I'mma pass," I told him. Like the sensible samurai he is, he nodded and conceded. “No quiero que te mates," he said. I nodded as well.
The lunch rush was coming to an end. I was tasked with serving tacos to the wise people who came to Taco Mix during their breaks. Did I feel like a true taquera? You know…I felt like I was giving myself a chance to experience something new, to be good at something I sucked at, to live life without fear! And I mean, I did feel bad for wasting some pastor meat while trying to cut it and for slowing the staff the hell down by having them teach me their grandiose skills, but they were so sweet and kind about it, I’d prolly bug them all over again. Miguel, thank you for teaching me that serving tacos is not a job, it’s a true talent, one that only the brave can perfect. My experience was 10/10 — I'd try to become a taquera again any day...much to Miguel's dismay.
OK, so maybe I have limited cooking skills...but at least I have T-MOBILE ONE, which sounds almost as good as tacos.
Thank you to Miguel and Taco Mix for helping make this article come to life! (And giving us life with delicious tacos.)
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Photos by Sarah Stone for BuzzFeed