Hell is standing beside Ashley Phosphate Road on a sweltering July noon. It's so hot and hazy the horizon quivers, and even the most acclimated of people sweat buckets. Hell, that is, until you bite into a soft handmade tortilla stuffed with a rich stew of braised meats and fire-roasted chiles. Suddenly, you're in heaven, enjoying the promised land of piquant pork, saucy beef, a squeeze of lime, and the American Dream, all wrapped into the hot summer wind of a thousand passing cars as they whizz by. The North Charleston taco stand is about good times, providing the immigrant population a brief respite from work, a place to come together with friends, to discuss the people back home or perhaps the gringo in line trying to decipher the Spanish that's coming hard and fast from the cook behind the plate -glass window.
Ben Berryhill and Charley Chance, owner and manager, respectively, at the Red Drum Gastropub, a Mt. Pleasant restaurant specializing in Southwestern flavors, have brought me to this place. They are adventurers, attracted to Mexican food by time spent closer to the source, in Texas and the immigrant enclaves of Chicago, in addition to forays into the heart of Mexico.
And we could be anywhere — not just at this epicenter of the Lowcountry's Latin taco truck culture. The mobile food stands appear where the workers are, catering to people accustomed to munching down a corn tortilla filled with fried intestines and chiles hot enough to turn your next bathroom "rendition" into a semblance of CIA torture operations. They park around North Chuck, Johns Island, and even Daniel Island, because wherever the market needs willing labor, it also needs taco trucks.
At Dorchester Road, Park Circle, and Remount Road in N. Charleston, you'll find them loaded down with a bevy of sauces, stews, cheese, lettuce, fresh juice, and the ubiquitous corn tortilla, a ball of cornmeal and lard (called masa) most often smashed between two steel plates and cooked until faintly toasted and fragrant with the smell of the ancient Mesoamerican kitchen.
Follow one of these taco trucks to its home, back to the kitchens where meats melt into subtle tenderness, and we find people like Carmen Peraz, whose weathered hands substantiate her broken declaration: "I cook this."
Peraz rules the roost at Los Parados, located just west of the I-26 interchange at 2625 Ashley Phosphate Road (843-824-0433, open daily). When she is in the house, the grill comes alive with the flavors of the Aztec and the Mayan. Street food gives way to rich stews. Her notable pozole is full of tender chunks of pork, swollen kernels of hominy, and a fiery chile broth. On Sunday, the menudo comes full of tripe. Beef cheeks look like Mexican pot roast, as the meat falls apart and gets slathered between the toasted French-style bread of a torta with avocados, jalapeño, and fresh cheese. As Charley remarks before taking his first bite: "It's the Mexican Whopper."
The taco truck is a treasure trove of largely undiscovered culinary delights, from the pulled pork-like carnitas to the holy grail of taco fillings, the vertical roasted, shaved, and griddle-seared pork "al pastor" — kind of like Greek gyro meat but better and garnished with lime juice and explosively hot chiles.
When venturing into the wonderful world of authentic Mexican food, take along this culinary glossary which we put together with the help of the guys from Red Drum to help you figure out what to order and what to eat.
Tacos: Tacos at a taco truck or real Mexican restaurant aren't your Old El Paso grocery store specials. They don't come fried into doubled-over shells and are usually made of corn, but can be made of flour (that's the uppity version down below the border). You see, the Spanish brought the wheat, while the natives made tortillas of corn — so which kind you ate was integrally linked to where you stood in the social pecking order. Either way you get them, authentic tacos are comprised of one or two small tortillas wrapped around a specific filling, which come in a range of flavors and the ubiquitous toppings of chopped onion and cilantro.
Cabeza: Technically cabeza means "head," but it's just the "cheeks" of the cow (think jowls). They're braised like a pot roast into a very tender meat. The tremendous amount of gelatin and connective tissue that breaks down during the long cooking makes cabeza one of the richest and fattiest fillings available.
Lengua: Just like it sounds, lengua means tongue, and before you get all grossed out, remember that tongue is a delicacy in cultures around the world. A beef tongue is so large that by the time it's parboiled, skinned, sliced, reheated on the griddle, and slapped into a tortilla with some spicy salsa verde, you won't recognize it, or care — it tastes too damn good.
Tripa: I used to think this meant tripe, but in the taco world, "tripa" usually refers to small intestines. That's right, we Southerners ain't the only ones with a hankerin' for chitlins. These puppies come out deep-fried and crunchy, a bit like calamari, but with that unmistakable animal essence, if you know what I mean. They're an acquired taste, but if you like them, there's no other substitute.
Asada: Beefsteak, thinly sliced and grilled like a Philly cheesesteak on the flattop, chopped and shredded. Hit it with some lime juice and red salsa.
Al Pastor: This is the test of a true taco truck, the ultimate Mexican street food (at least in our neck of the woods). The real stuff starts with a vertical spit layered with sliced and pounded pork butts (that's actually the top portion of the shoulder), marinated in a concoction of lime and chile, before being spit-roasted and sliced to order onto a searing griddle. Every cook has her secret mix, and every cook thinks hers is the best, but they all offer the complex flavors of any taco filling.
Suadero: A rare one, but worth seeking out (La Norteña offers it). It's very similar to cabeza, but comes from the lower part of the beef rib. Like the cabeza, it offers a rich beefy flavor, but perhaps has a bit less of the unctuous character of the cheek meat.
Barbacoa: Mexican barbecue — on Sundays at Los Parados they do a lamb barbacoa — spicy, soupy, and full of completely broken-down meat piled in heaps.
Chorizo: The official name of a plethora of sausages in Spain and Latin America, the chorizo sausage takes on different characteristics depending on where it comes from. Most of the chorizo around our area is a spicy crumble that comes hot off the grill. It can be a bit dry in the less stellar spots, but hardcore adherents would order nothing else.
Tortas: If you think tacos are the only game in town, you need a torta. Like a taco, its fillings vary, but they're layered between massive toasted buns. My favorite is the Milanese at Los Parados, where Carmen will grill up a lightly breaded beef cutlet and slap it together with slices of fresh avocado and white cheese. Order one; it's all you'll need.