James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Nothing Heals a Broken Heart Like a Technicolor Taco Cart

Nothing Heals a Broken Heart Like a Technicolor Taco Cart

Chicharrón tacos in the Yucatán

I wandered through the pre-dawn streets, looking for a place that was open. It was 6 a.m. We had just said goodbye.

January in the Yucatán had been unusually frigid, flurried with rain. I had only packed beach dresses of gauzy linen, and walked hunched with cold.

In the blue light I came to a technicolor taco cart, its propane burners lit. Behind it a tiny lady emerged. She looked about 80. She deftly navigated between a myriad of metal pots, stirring various toppings—black beans, crumbled boiled eggs, cotija.

I ordered a chicharrón taco. There was nowhere to sit, so I found a spot on the sidewalk. The taco arrived on a plastic plate, morsels of fatty, gelatinous skin glistening in red gravy. Amber rivulets of grease caught the morning light, now emerging. I took a bite. The umami flavor flooded my mouth, satisfyingly salty. It was the very essence of pork, condensed. A far cry from the powdery pork rinds packaged in American supermarkets, I thought.

I sat in the morning sun, forgetting my chill. I ordered another.

The previous days had been punctuated with street food. Panuchos eaten standing up, hard disks of tortilla topped with threads of chicken; tamales colados wrapped in banana leaves, as thin and square as a padded envelope. The masa inside was as creamy as custard; within, paper thin layers of chaya, cream cheese, and eggs. I would skip the hotel breakfast to bike through downtown, pecking at stalls. He hadn’t been very interested; he preferred muesli by the beach. How boring, I had thought. But it hadn’t made this any easier.

The dusty alleyways were coming alive now, putters of cars now audible. I didn’t want to go back to the hotel room.

I sauntered up the main drag, fatigued with pork fat, sadness, and lack of sleep. The light was now bright and harsh. I came to a sidewalk cafe—clearly the touristy kind, but the only thing open. Outside sat a group of older American women who looked like they were dressed for golf.

I pulled a chair into the sun and ordered a hot coffee. It came steaming, thick and dark. I wrapped my hands around it for warmth, and thought about how to spend my last day here, alone. Coffee, a taco, a slice of sun: welcome consolations, I thought, if this has to be an ending.

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