Under the overpass at I-44 and Yale, past the construction that slowly but surely progresses, the boulevard widens to accept the flow of traffic south. The South Yale salmon swim downstream, neck and neck, into a sea of vinyl signage, a wave of promotion that eventually achieves the opposite of its intentions, presumably to stand out.
Near the intersection at 51st Street, where nets hang to keep errant tee shots from bounding into traffic, the crash of pitches reaches full crescendo. An American Check Cashers waves its flag on the east side of the street, while across from it the modest fortress of the Israel Diamond Supply shares space with an empty Carrabba’s Italian Grill, whose greenery still dangles from roof-top planters. Back over Yale, in a concrete collective called the Jamestown Square, Bamboo Thai Bistro does business in what was once a Billy’s burger joint. We recently got takeout there, where the menu states, “You may request any dish to be additionally spicy. Management accepts NO responsibility for any side effects.”
Up from it, on a concrete island in front of Primeaux Kia, a proselytizer waved a sign over her head, “His Pain—Your Gain,” with a poorly rendered image of the Christ stretched across the rack. She waved it at passing traffic and seemed to be fighting back tears, perhaps from the fumes gathering in the gutters. Cars and trucks blaze from beneath the awning at QuikTrip, tanked up on high-dollar unleaded. It was all messing with my left turn.
Tacos El Rinconcito is tucked back in behind all the action, on Braden Avenue, just around the corner from Tulsa’s Select Hotel, which my son calls “Tulsa’s Secret Hotel” when we’d pass it on the way to school. It’s no secret that it used to be a Hilton. Look for a sign that exclaims, three times, “Authentic Mexican Food.” Go early or late. The place seats maybe two dozen.
El Rinconcito means “the little corner.”
Without a food to call our own, Tulsa adopts Mexico, in all its incarnations. Except perhaps Mexico City, which is its own melting cauldron. You probably won’t find lobster enchiladas or marinated snook (robalo marinado) at your corner tacqueria or Tex-Mex outlet, let alone corn silk fungus or Oaxacan black mole.For those, you must travel. Ruth Young, a local restaurant queen and world traveler, recently ate in Coyoacán, one of the sixteen boroughs (delegaciones) of Mexico City. Everybody else I know recently ate at On the Border or El Rio Verde.
“I can remember what my friend ate,” Young said. “I’m always more interested in what’s on somebody else’s plate.”
This friend ordered pig’s feet cebiche. Young described the vinegary nature of the dish, pointing to a picture of it on her iPad. This is how we taste the food of other worlds, in stolen Apple moments.
El Rinconcito looks like it might have sold burgers in a past life. Guys in business casual, possibly stragglers from the Select Hotel, pair off over wet burritos. A menu board offers a dizzying array of items, variations on the theme of corn and meat. Guys from the neighborhood come in for tacos then bolt. One particularly ripe one walked past me, his lips sucked in against his gums, and I couldn’t tell where the odor of old sweat ended and the aroma of beef tacos began. I was chewing on chips and drinking horchata when Doug came in.
“I think we go to the counter,” I said. There, a tiny woman waited with her pen drawn. We stared at the menu on the wall behind her, and at some hand-scrawled lingo of the day’s especiales. We stared so long that she said, “We have some pictures,” pointing to a huge wall of Mexican-American fare in four-color gloss. Taped to the front of the counter was a huge photo of a pork torta, with an overabundance of ingredients spilling from its slick buns.
We ordered tacos—chorizo, pollo, asada—and Doug added a side of guacamole. You can judge a restaurant by its house salad, I once read, the idea being, cover your bases. In Mexican restaurants, that role falls to guacamole. Cilantro seemed to grow from this one, but that and a bit of chile and maybe a dash of lime were the only seasonings propping up the thick, fat avocado. Avocado comes from the Mexican aguacate, a bastardizing of the Nahuatl term ahuácatl, meaning “testicle,” for the way they hang before picked.
We took our time and talked. El Rinconcito rose with the lunch hour then fell. Outside, where it threatened rain, we said our goodbyes on the sidewalk. “Hey, I’m going over here,” I said, pointing to the convenience store next door. Doug drove off in his blue Toyota, another business lunch on the books.
The bookend to El Rinconcito is Ryan’s Mercadito, a little neighborhood place where you can pay your utilities and find the usual assortment of C-store gum, pop and motor oil. But Ryan’s also stocks an impressive supply of Mexican cooking gear: canela, cinnamon sticks; brown cones of raw sugar cane; hibiscus flowers, of all things; and a whole pegboard of dried chiles. Plastic bags of chicharones—pork rinds, the size of notepads—hang on endcaps. I studied the guts of one sack, stunned at the size, and remembered that pork rinds were elder Bush’s favorite snack. It always struck me oddly that a leader of the free world would confess such a thing, even one from Texas.
Up by the counter was a newsstand stocking copies of the free bilingual La Semana Del Sur, with that day’s front page flashing photos of Mary Fallin and John Sullivan, Colin Firth and Muammar Gaddafi (their spelling). In a page-one story headlined “Mary Fallin’s government of exclusion,” reporter Victoria Lis Moreno wrote that Oklahoma was poised to become a “Red Neck Fortress” run by “a woman who—quite like Victoria Barkley in Big Valley—is the perfect combination between motherhood and recklessness.”
El Rinconcito gets in your blood, for better or worse. For a short while, I couldn’t get enough of it. One day, I hungered for something out there and asked about the cabeza encebollado, which sounded to me like encephalitic head. A young boy of the kitchen wearing a Yankees cap said, “Um, I think there’s a picture.”
In fact, encebollado is the national dish of Ecuador and means meat smothered in onions. In this case, slices of cow head. I changed my mind and went with the chilaquiles, a sort of saving grace for leftover tortillas. Essentially, a spicy kind of casserole that looked like bits of failed enchiladas and tasted like the perfect antidote to the false spring blowing coldly against the windows.
Another time I ate huaraches—thick slabs of fried cornmeal—covered in pork rinds, but soft rather than crispy. It is an oily flavor and a flabby mouthful, a dish hard-earned in a mouth uninitiated. I left a good portion of the pork skin, eating my way around it to the golden tortillas napped in salsa fresca. As a rule, I don’t labor hard enough to eat this caliber of food.
Tripe is similar, in feeling if not flavor. At Las Americas on Third Street, I suck down tripe tacos dressed in fresh lime—tripe as crispy as fried chicken but still with enough of the rubbery bite to require an effort and still manage a taste. The aroma is dank, like rotting earth, the flavor rich and a bit bitter, like sin.
But tripe, tripa, for me must be fried, frito. In Barcelona, I ordered tripe stew in a little neighborhood diner and my sister-in-law said, “What smells like wet dog?” In Florence, same thing, different inflection on the tomato. In 1981, in College Station, eating lunch with the college professor dad of my school chum who’d moved away, I ate a spoonful of menudo and nearly spat. Los Nortenos it was called and still is, on Main Street in Bryan, the brother city to College Station, so close they run together, like rice and beans.
When the craving for tacos strikes, can anything else do? A Mexican friend of mine, a Vera Cruz man, is always giving me grief for “making a taco out of everything.” The few times we’ve eaten Mexican food together, he’ll pull a tortilla from the basket and roll it across the table with the palm of his hand in one smooth, practiced motion until it looks like a taquito. Then he bites off of it as he munches on his rice and beans and whatever meat. I’ll take a tortilla, spoon some stuff into the middle of it, fold it and eat it like a taco.
I called him out on the sidewalk on my first trip to El Rinconcito.
“Dude, what are antojitos, sincronizadas and alambres?”
He told me to order the molé. I ordered the tacos de chorizo.
Chorizo, the dried pork sausage of Spanish fame, is flavored with smoked paprika, garlic, pepper and salt, and wine. Mexico, in its chorizo, substitutes its own dried chiles and cooks the mixture down with vinegar. When in doubt, that’s what I order.
“Anything to drink?” the man at the counter said, in a wheezing rasp of a voice, as if he’d lost it.
“Water,” I said, and he squinted at me so I said, “Agua?”
“You want a bottle of water, or a cup?”
I told him a cup and asked him what happened to his voice, failing to see the divot in his neck until he titled his head back and pointed to it. He said something about a procedure he’d gone through that had wrecked his vocal cords, then he showed me the place in his neck where a piece of metal still resided. “Sometimes,” he said, “when I go through an airport security check …” Then he waved his arms wildly to indicate the obnoxious beepers and flashing lights.
I shut my mouth and took a seat next to a window, one that must have been recently replaced. The Owens Corning R–5.0 insulation was showing where there should have been sheetrock.
The same little kid who’d taken my order in previous trips brought my tacos, only now he was wearing a red cast on his left arm. When he left, I squared up to the basket and squirted the two tacos with lime then grabbed the edges of the double-tortilla wrapper and bit into the bits of cilantro-flecked pork. I don’t eat raw onions but I eat them with tacos de chorizo, their tiny sweetness playing with the spice of the sausage. The lime ensures they play well together. Two tacos are just right but they make for a short lunch. After I ate, I sat and watched the place fill up with a high-noon construction crew. When the line out the door came in, I walked past it and out.
This time, I remembered to turn south out of the parking lot, back toward 51st. If you turn north, you encounter the one-way service road and then you’re in the dirt and truck traffic and orange cones of the big I-44 dig. I drove south, past the Braden Creek Apartments, where leasing agents fly colored balloons to lure tenants. Then I pulled into the QuikTrip to get a Dr Pepper and felt sick that I didn’t grab a horchata to-go back at the restaurant.