What happens when a pastry-turned-Mexican food chef from Massachusetts meets a seasoned food journalist? In this case, it’s the new cookbook Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. The 250-page tome, filled with endless recipes and an undeniable passion for eclectic Mexican cuisine, is out this week from Alex Stupak. The chef made made his name with beloved Mexican restaurants including Empellon as well as stints on The Food Network—and he’s collaborated with the writer Jordana Rothman. Here, the duo reflects on their most exotic taco memories, including an unforgettable three-day trip to the country where it all began.
Alex Stupak: I love the places where they make cow’s head tacos or lamb’s head tacos, because you can customize it. You can say you want one with the brains or one just with the ears. Or you can come up with your own proprietary mix making it for you. The last time I had cow’s head tacos was with Jordana and we were walking through the streets of Mexico City.
Jordana Rothman: Alex and I were traveling in Mexico City to do some research on al pastor tacos, which are a very particular type of taco that originates in Mexico City—you slice it off a rotating stick. And while we were there, we were visiting all of these taquerias and Alex told me about this different type of tacqueria—a cabeza taquaeria—where basically you can order your taco, but you order it based on the part of the head that you want. I’m super open-minded to just about everything; I often will eat every part of the animal, or at least give it a shot. We happened to come across one of these cabeza taquerias and we ordered everything we could. You can order things that are a little more common, like the cheek or ear, but you can also order things that are a little less common like brain. I happen to love that—it has a very custardy taste. Imagine eating the most luscious scrambled eggs you’ve ever had.
AS: We were only in Mexico City to eat al pastor tacos and that’s because I was getting ready to open up my third restaurant, which is dedicated to them. We were nuts. We hired a driver and we drove around in a black car. We literally must have eaten at 30 or 40 different taquerias in three days. We went to this place that’s famous for their al pastor tacos, called El Ray del Taco, and there was a guy there making another taco that people were lining up for. Jordana and my wife decided to order it—on the menu it just said “cheeseburger taco”—and the cook took a hamburger patty and put it on a griddle. He began to chop up the meat with the side of his spatula and then proceeded to put two very generous handfuls of chihuahua cheese directly on the griddle and he began to mix the meat and cheese together—much the way they mix things at Coldstone Creamery. He then piled that on two flour tortillas and proceeded to put a slice of tomato and a slice of avocado and a tablespoon of mayonnaise on top. The thing must have been a 1,200-calorie taco.
JR: One thing that was a challenge for me was eating an eyeball. I absolutely tasted it, I respect that it’s part of that culture and I want to experience it, but for me the eyeball is a texture thing. It’s not the flavor, which is fantastic, but when you’re eating eyeballs, they don’t let you forget you’re eating eyeballs. They’re chewy and feel like you’re eating Korean rice cakes. I don’t know why this was such a hang-up for me.
AS: I’ve also eaten my fair share of insects—I’m at the point where it’s not even odd to me. The most common thing are chocolinas, which are grasshoppers. There are also chicatanas, which are little flying ants that get made into moles. I think the insect thing is more taboo for Jordana than it is for me. Surprisingly less and less people are fazed by it.
JR: That is one place I have a hard time going. That is a deeply uncool thing to admit because the most forward-thinking food personalities and chefs are working with insects right now. If you look forward to the future of cooking and our primary protein continues to dwindle because it’s actually causing an environmental disaster. Insects are very much a protein of the future and something people talk about a lot. I do want to be open to the culture. Alex and I feel incredibly grateful and indebted to the Mexican culture for being as rich as it is and allowing us to explore and discover within it.
Tacos: Recipes and Provocations is available for purchase here.