555 Park Boulevard, East Village
A salad! A salad! My kingdom for another salad!
Running out of time, getting closer and closer to 12th and Imp and the bus I've got to catch in, like, half an hour.
Without a lot of hope, I drop into Azteca, the little taco joint at the Park and Market trolley stop.
Honestly, as Norma the taquera will tell you, most people come in here for carne asada fries, or a California burrito. Both stuffed with French fries in true border tradition. Mix and match. Hey, Azteca has been here at the trolley stop 9 years, and before that, down at 12th and Imperial for 20 years. They know their clientele.
Like, right ahead of me, this guy Matt in kinda Aztec headgear is ordering the carne asada fries. "I do every time," he says. "They're da bomb." They cost $7.99. But then he wants bacon too. Norma charges him about 50 cents more for that.
Bottom line, I know I'm at the wrong place if I want to hang in with the salad diet. The wall menu is filled with everything but. Tostadas, enchiladas, tortas, chimichangas, tacos, burritos, quesadillas, the usual suspects. I'm just about to give up when the cook, Freddy, calls through the server window.
"What can't you find, my friend?"
"Salad. Guess you don't..."
"Sure we do. Look in the specials. Only one, but it's good."
I look again, and oh yeah. In a "specials" section half-hidden below the main menu, it says "Chicken salad, $4.70."
Can't beat the price.
"Not too many people order salads here," says Norma. "But it has tortilla strips and grilled chicken. Lots."
And boy, she ain't kidding. Five minutes later she calls my name — I like how chatty and clubby everyone is — and hands me this polystyrene box bulging with... let's see. Grab a plastic fork, sit down, open up, and check it out... lettuce, tons of chunks of steaming grilled chicken, crispy hot tortilla strips, grated Cotija cheese, tomato slices, onions, green bell peppers, and in two pots beside it, a tawny brown salsa and a creamy dressing. "We make them both," says Norma. "The white one's Freddy's special."
It's nice and gloopy. I upend it over everything. The other's slightly vinegary, with maybe tomatillo. I don't pour that bad boy over because, man, it is zippy. Lip-burning hot. Picante.
But it's great to dip the chicken chunks into. The grilled thing, the garlic thing, the sharp, vinegary heat...beautiful combo.
Yes, I'm in a hurry. Gotta catch that bus. But even if I wasn't, I'd have plowed through this, because it's such a great combination. I come out from ten minutes' gorging with my lips totally burning and taste buds calling out "More!" And hey, it's mostly nuts and twigs. You don't have to feel bad about feeling good.
I mean I don't know how purely Mexican this ensalada is, just like Matt's carne asada fries.
On the other hand, mestizo! Is good, right? That's what we border people are.
And hey. Back-up for my theory? As I leave, can't help noticing the mural on the left wall. It's La Malinche and the Aztec warrior. Copy of a famous painting. La Malinche was the Nahua, like Aztec, mistress/translator for Cortez. We're talking like 500 years ago, exactly. Had a son by him. They say without La Malinche, Cortez would never have conquered Moctezuma and the Mexico of the Aztecs. Because of her, the mixed-race tradition began in Mexico, and she symbolizes it. She's loved and hated for it.
Whatever, mixing traditions has a long tradition around here. So let's not get too purist about carne asada fries and California burritos and grilled chicken salad not being "the real Mexican thing."
Besides, for $4.70, this is one of the choicest salads I've chomped into yet.