It pierces the night. A sharp whistle and then a woolly hoot.
First thought: train. But how come a train is running through downtown Tijuana late at night? It’s not far. I can see the puffs of steam.
Of course I have to follow, see what up. Besides, think I know that street they’re coming from. It’s Guillermo Prieto, not far from the bullring. The one with that row of taquerias on it, Las Ahumaderas. That’s what the whole bunch are collectively called, maybe half a dozen under the same sidewalk-covering canopy. “The Smokehouses,” you might say.
After the steam, wafts of smoke belch out from there. Meat hitting hot griddles. And, oh man, the sabor. Swear I can pick up the beautiful odor of pineapple-sweetened adobada pork. For sure, it’s dripping flaming drops of marinated pork fat from the trompo, the meat revolving on a vertical spit. (Trompo is the Spanish word for a spinning top.)
On Guillermo Prieto, it’s so crowded, even at this time of night, I can’t see what’s happening in the street. And the noise? Man. It’s coming from the competing taco barkers yelling “Pasale, pasale!” and touting everything from chorizo to “vampire tacos.” And on top of them, two guitarists are belting out “Cielito Lindo” at the top of their lungs. But then, in the background, there it is again: that steam-engine-type “Tweep! Tweep!”
Wow. Quite a scene.
Far as I can work out, they have at least five places competing here, side by side: Tacos El Paisa, Tacos Los Paisas, Tacos El Paisano, Las Quince Letras, and Las Tres Letras — but not a lot of space. All the sidewalk counter stools are full.
Ah. Guy’s leaving. I slip in. Right next to a glistening trompo of pork meat al pastor.
“Yes?” says the guy with the long knife, Claudio.
Can’t resist, even though where I’m at, Tacos El Paisano, has its own list of all the usual taco suspects, plus tortas, burritos, and… vampiros?
But, no time. They’re not screwing around here.
“How much?” I say.
“Fifteen pesos,” says Claudio.
That’s maybe $1.10 right now.
“Deal,” I say. ’Course, now I see El Paisano has a glowing charcoal grill right in front of me, too. It’s loaded with all kinds of animal intestines, organs, and, ooh: large golden brown sausages.
“Chorizo,” says Carmelo, who’s running the joint. Busy.
I ask the guy next to me: “What’s the vampiro’?”
“It’s a kind of taco,” he says. Luis. “They throw the tortilla on the griddle and then leave it on till it’s almost crackling dry. It curls. It starts to look like a bat’s wing. That’s why they call it vampiro. Then they fill it with cheese and carne asada, usually.”
He says he’s been coming at least once a week since he was eight years old.
“My dad always brought me on Mondays because they’ve had a two-for-one deal on Mondays. See? They still do.”
Sure enough, on the wall’s another sign. “Todo los lunes, tacos 2x1. Adobada, cabeza, chorizo.”
“These guys have been here since 1960,” he says. “That’s, what, 55 years?”
Claudio turns up with my adobada. And what I like is he goes and brings back a big plate filled with grilled green onions from the fire, plus cucumbers and sliced radishes. And glad to see he’s pretty much drowned the taco’s pork with a thick green topping of guacamole.
I scrape some hot salsa from a big black volcanic molcajete that looks like it was dug out of Tenochtitlan itself and get chowing. Not bad for a buck-ten.
“So, what-all’s whistling away like a steam train out there?” I ask Luis.
“Oh, the camoteras. They sell steamed camotes — yams — and plantain. One of the oldest desserts in Mexico. You haven’t tried them?”
So, now I’ve really got to get off the sidewalk and go see. I elbow my way through. The racket’s coming from a couple of little tin carts on bicycle wheels. They have chimneys. And as you get up close, you see that down below, they’re burning wood fires. And every now and then Carlos, the guy at the first one, suit of lights, pulls a little string and “Wheee-yup!” that sound again. And then calls, “Camotes camotes!”
Huh. These things are like little steam engines. Well, I guess they are steam engines.
“But why the steam?” I ask Carlos.
“It’s always been,” he says. He’s just a kid, but he knows a lot. “In Puebla, other states down south, they’re everywhere. Traditional. Camotes — yams — and platanos. Plantains, the big bananas. The fire is to keep them warm — we cook them beforehand — and the fire makes the steam so we can keep them moist. Would you like some?”
He says the best is the combination yam and plantain, 45 pesos (say, $3.50). I go for it. He leans in to the little kinda cupboard where the goodies are and cobbles together darker-skinned yams, looks like, and golden slices of large-looking bananas, all covered in a beautiful white gloop, all in a bowl.
“It’s made up of piloncillo, condensed milk, orange juice, and guava,” he says. “And the plantain is enmielado, soaked in honey.”
Oh, yes. Piloncillo. Those brown cones of unrefined cane sugar you see in street stalls everywhere. Man, oh man, what a taste. The honey, the guava thing, and on this cool night, the great gut and hand warmer.
I leave the whole scene with one regret: I forgot to ask Carlos if I could pull the string and make that thing go “Fweeeet!” And watch other people freak out.
Last thing I hear? Carlos: “Camotes camotes!”
The Place: Las Ahumaderas taco vendors, Avenida Guillermo Prieto 2640 (near Agua Caliente Boulevard), Colonia América, half block south of Agua Caliente, Tijuana
Prices: Most tacos around $1.25; burritos, about $3.50; campechanas, $1.25; combo sweet potato and plantain, with honey (from the camotero), $3.50
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m. daily; camotero, 4:00–11:00 p.m.
Buses: Taxis de Ruta, from 4th and Constitución, or taxi libre