Like many of Mexico’s best taquerías, Tacos Manolo greets its patrons from a block away with its alluring smell. But it isn’t the well-known odor of fired achiote on a swirling spit of al pastor or the equally recognizable heavy scent of bistek searing on a griddle.
No, the aroma wafting down this particular block of Calle Luz Saviñon is a mystery to the uninitiated – a unique, unplaceable perfume that allures as much as it confuses. It is the smell of onions and unknown meats and mystery sauces bubbling together, fusing into something greater and more delicious than the sum of its parts. It is the smell of the eponymous Taco Manolo, a one-of-a-kind dish that has brought the restaurant fame and accolades.
However, before one encounters the actual flavor of a Taco Manolo, one must contend with its visage, which, frankly, is ugly.
A Taco Manolo begins life as a pile of diced onions unceremoniously dumped onto a hot griddle and immediately coated in a layer of vegetable oil. Soon thereafter, the cook stirs in a stack of bacon bits. Salt and pepper follow. What happens next surprises the observant eye and nose: the cook pulls out a well-worn bottle of Worcestershire sauce and liberally squirts. Then a premeasured packet of soy sauce emerges to douse the grill. The final ingredient lands atop the watery mess in a solid sphere of red flesh just smaller than a soccer ball. It’s ground beef, and lots of it. Once the cook mixes this in, the resulting blend more closely resembles coagulated motor oil than anything you’d want to put in a tortilla and eat.
“It was a battle to get people to try the tacos,” Lucero Meza Lopez, the restaurant’s manager, told us recently. Meza Lopez referred to the infancy of Tacos Manolo, when it still operated from a stand on the sidewalk. In those years, shortly after its founding in 1984, the restaurant’s owner and namesake, Manuel Perez, struggled to entice patrons to sample the Frankenstein taco that bore his name. But, according to Meza Lopez, “once customers sampled the Taco Manolo, they loved it and they came back for more.” While the taquería still operates its original stand, by 2000, it had developed enough of a following to move into a large storefront across the street from its birthplace.
The flavors of the Taco Manolo explain this great success. It tastes like no other taco. Wrapped up in a tortilla, the gooey blend of bacon and beef still dripping with sauce registers as more of a stew than a grilled cut of meat, particularly if one orders the taco with cheese. In one’s mouth, complexity abounds, as the taco boasts a touch of acidity from the Worcestershire, the umami and saltiness of the soy sauce and the double load of savory meat flavor from beef and pork.
The restaurant wisely provides extra tortillas necessary to conquer such an unwieldy jumble. Top this all with Manolo’s peanut hot sauce and you’ll understand how such an ugly, confusing taco granted its namesake such glory.
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