What culinary voluptuaries consider exotic and delicious, timorous eaters might find distasteful and even nauseating. With M.F.K Fisher as their muse, culinary voluptuaries–the truly adventurous diners among us–don’t let themselves be drawn into a vortex of memories recalling foods they’ve already experienced. Instead, they live with carpe diem engraved on their hearts, ever in pursuit of their next culinary epiphany, the next “aha” moment when their taste buds awaken to never before experienced symphonies of incredible flavors. Sometimes to achieve the discoveries they crave, they have to reach into the distant past, their culture’s culinary roots.
That’s certainly the case in contemporary Mexico where, for the past quarter-century or so, the scions of Montezuma have been frequenting restaurants and markets which prepare and serve Aztec foods. “Wait,” you ask, “didn’t the Aztecs eat dogs, grasshoppers, iguanas and worms? Is that what you mean by “Aztec Foods?” While it’s true that the aforementioned proteins were staples of the Aztec diet and modern Mexican restaurants do offer several of them, the Mesoamerican culture also gave the world such everyday indulgences as avocado and chocolate.
In Montezuma’s great city of Tenochtitlan (which the Spaniards later renamed Mexico City), chocolate was considered a luxury drink reserved exclusively for gods and the ruler class. It is believed that Montezuma’s daily constitution included 50 flagons of a finely ground, foamy red dyed chocolate flavored with chili peppers, vanilla, wild bee honey and aromatic flowers. The Aztecs believed chocolate was an aphrodisiac. With 4,000 concubines at his beck-and-call, Montezuma needed all the help he could get in the days long before the “little blue pill.”
He also got lots of help from his favorite dish–guacamole, another dish the Mayans considered an aphrodisiac and which they called “the fertility fruit.” The sole responsibility for one woman on Montezuma’s kitchen staff was to prepare the guacamole for Montezuma’s evening meal. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. With the profligate portions of chocolate and guacamole he consumed, Montezuma himself was probably the first victim of “Montezuma’s revenge.”
Culinary historians confirm the version of the guacamole prepared for Montezuma was made with mashed avocados, chile peppers, tomatoes, white onions, and salt. A number of variations exist today, several including lime and cilantro. Guacamole is the reason for much of the nearly twenty year pattern of growth in avocado consumption since the year 2000. That growth culminated in 2018 when more than 2.4 billion pounds of avocados were consumed across the fruited plain–at least 20 pounds of which went toward the creation of the millennial favorite, avocado toast. The rest is mostly guacamole.
Because guacamole is so popular, it’s no surprise a Duke City restaurant would be named for Montezuma’s favorite food. What is surprising is that it took so long. It’s also no surprise that the ownership group is the same team which owns El Mesquite, one of the most highly regarded and heavily trafficked Mexican grocery stores in the Albuquerque area. In addition to groceries, El Mesquite offers fruits and vegetables, a bakery, butcher and deli services and a full-service kitchen showcasing traditional Mexican food favorites.
True to its name, Guaca Guaca would have made Montezuma very happy. That is unless he didn’t allow variations to the way his personal guacamole chef prepared it. Guaca Guaca offers guacamole four ways: guaca pico (guacamole with pico de gallo), guaca inferno (guacamole pico with chile), guaca Hatch (guacamole with Hatch green chile) and guaca crema (guacamole with Mexican cream. At the very least, all four are interesting. You’re not likely to experience an epiphanous “aha” moment, but if like me you’ve ever lamented the unrealized potential of guacamole that’s mostly mashed avocados, you’ll appreciate the effort made to enliven what can be a somewhat bland food favorite.
A mountain of crisp, low-in-salt chips is delivered with the quadrumvirate of guacamole. The chips have a pronounced corn flavor and are formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops. Though it lacks the “scoopable” qualities of the thicker guacamole, our favorite is the guaca crema. Mexican cream does indeed add creaminess to guacamole. It also lightens the greenish hue that inspires detractors to refer to guacamole as “moldy stuff.” We also enjoyed the guaca Hatch…and why wouldn’t we. Green chile improves the flavor of everything it touches, imbuing the guacamole with real personality and just a bit of heat.
A two-layer condiment caddy is provided with every food order. The caddy’s six separate steel containers are generously filled with cilantro, pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa, tatemada salsa, guaca crema and limes. If you scratched your head upon reading “tatemada,” you’re not the only one and it probably won’t be the first new term (not necessarily a Gil word) you’ll espy in this review. Salsa tatemada simply means charred salsa. Veggies are charred (grilled or roasted) before being chopped or pureed. It’s more important that you know it’s a delicious salsa with serious heat.
That’s three salsas (if you count pico de gallo) to go with four types of guacamole, truly a feast fit for Montezuma. Surprisingly the most piquant of the three salsas is the tomatillo salsa. What’s more surprising is that tomatillos really have no “chile heat” and aren’t even measured on the Scoville heat index. They’re tart, fruity and herbaceous, but not piquant. Our server couldn’t tell me what heat additive was used with the tomatillos, but whatever it was had a real bite. Our favorite was the tatemada salsa (and not just because I learned a new word) whose pronounced charred flavor and pleasant piquancy married well with the chips.
19 October 2019: If you enjoy reading Gil’s thrilling reviews because they come with a side of vocabulary, you should be doubly happy to learn there are no walls or borders to stop this lesson in lexicon. You’ve already learned about salsa tatemada. Your second new vocabulary word (as it was mine) is “momia,” a Mexican term for “mummy.” It makes good sense. A momia is a a burrito wrapped in bacon…and being wrapped in bacon is a fantasy most men secretly share. Choose from carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, chicken or shrimp as the filler for your burrito then fantasize about that bacon being wrapped around it. My first-ever momia was stuffed with al pastor, so this dish was doubly porcine–roasted, marinated pork inside and a smoky, salty bacon wrap. Where has this been all my life?
19 October 2019: Traditional street tacos are served with your favorite meat: carne adovada, al pastor, carnitas, shrimp, chicken and shrimp. There’s also a vegetarian option. Carnivorous with more healthy inclinations can also opt for their meat-filled tacos to be wrapped in lettuce. We were happy with all four tacos we ordered, but happiest with the vegetarian taco (grilled mushrooms, carrots, broccoli and other grilled vegetables). These are “super-sized” tacos Gustavo Arellano, nationally syndicated author of Ask A Mexican, decries as inauthentic. Tacos, he explains, are “meant to be a snack, a bit, not a full meal.” To each his or her own. We appreciated the full-sized tacos constructed on one corn tortilla per taco, not two.
19 October 2019: Vocabulary lesson number two. Repeat after me. Caramelo. If you’re thinking “caramel” you’d be right. Caramelo is the Spanish translation of caramel, but when you see “Caramelo” on the Guaca Guaca menu, it’s offered with carne adovada, al pastor, carnitas, shrimp, chicken and even shrimp. Not even the intrepid Aztecs drizzled sweet, warm caramel on such proteins. No, my friends. In the Mexican state of Sonora, caramelos are a type of taco made with a flour tortilla filled with carne asada and topped with Chihuahua queso, a soft white farmer’s cheese. Caramelos have caught on like wildfire in the Tucson area, too.
Ask for a caramelo almost anywhere across the Land of Enchantment and you’ll probably be given the type of “what kind of nut are you” stare normally reserved for New York Giants fans or politicians. Not so at Guaca Guaca where your caramelo can be stuffed with any of the aforementioned proteins. If you’re wondering what the difference is between caramelos and quesadillas, the only real difference we could discern is that caramelos are thicker, more generously endowed with ingredients. They’re even more cheesy than most quesadillas. More cheese, more ingredients means more flavor. Caramelos are terrific!
19 October 2019: Anthropologist Maribel Alvarez of the University of Arizona says the “quintessential food of Tucson” is the Sonoran hot dog, (grilled hot dog wrapped in bacon with pinto beans, grilled onions, chopped tomatoes, mayo and mustard then topped with a hint of jalapeño sauce) explaining that instead of taking guests to high-end restaurants, locals will bring their out-of-towners to one of the city’s purveyors of Sonoran hot dogs. Though Sonoran hot dogs haven’t caught on quite as well in the Land of Enchantment, perhaps the Guaca Guaca Dog will. There isn’t a significant ingredient variation between a Sonoran hot dog and a Guaca Guaca Dog (grilled hot dog wrapped in bacon (barber pole style) with beans, grilled onions, lettuce, tomatoes, crema and guacamole). We love them both.
Both the Sonoran hot dog and the Guaca Guaca dog are messy, “everything but the kitchen sink” hot dogs some people will love and others won’t. For those of us who love creative, flavorful hot dogs with a pronounced smoky bacon influence, this one is sure to please. Thanks to the the richness of the guaca crema and the tanginess of the Mexican crema, you won’t miss mustard (or heaven forbid, ketchup). Nor is mustard necessary when you’ve got grilled onions. The hot dog is grilled until crispy before being nestled into a bolillo-type roll where it shares space with so many ingredients, they virtually spill over. The Guaca Guaca Dog is a terrific fusion of Mexican and American elements.
18 July 2020: TASTE, an online “magazine for the new home cook, everyday eater and cooking curious,” describes the Vampiro (yes, that translates from Spanish to vampire) as “three-way lovechild of a taco, a tostada, and a quesadilla.” There are a number of theories as to why the intriguing Mexican snack cum meal would have such a macabre and interesting name. Some theorize that the tortilla’s concave form on the grill resembles a bat’s wing. Others contend a vampiro eats away your hunger the way a vampire laps up blood. Both explanations seem to have some credence.
18 July 2020: Vampiros are neither taco, tostada or quesadilla, but a hybrid of all three in which a corn tortilla is toasted on the comal until firm (not crunchy or crispy) then topped with melted cheese and your protein of choice. Guaca Guaca serves its vampiros with pico de gallo and two salsas which you can apply as liberally or copiously as you want. My choice was carnitas, braised pork cut into small pieces. With a pinkish hue and a salty-sweet-smoky flavor, our initial impression was “this is ham,” but our server assured us it was not. Later research revealed smoked pork butt often seems to turn out rather “hammy.” Whatever the case, our first-ever vampiro was memorable.
18 July 2020: Just as the French are given perhaps too much credit for the “invention” of the banh mi, there are many culinary historians who ascribe credit for the origin of the Mexican torta to the French. Those sources will tell you the torta originated during the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s. They’ll have you believe that Mexican bakers were inspired by the French baguette to create smaller loves called telera and bolillo, both of which were used to create the sandwich we know and love as the torta. Another theory is more similar to the backstories for the invention of the chimichanga and even the cheeseburger. This second theory posits that the torta was created by “accident” when a vendor accidentally dropped a sandwich in a vat of salsa.
18 July 2020: It’s long been my hope that in addition to Taco Tuesday, there will someday be a Torta Thursday. Tortas have become my very favorite Mexican fast food, by far supplanting tacos. Perhaps someday the rest of the world will catch up with me. In the meantime, seeing “torta” on the menu elicits the type of reaction experienced by the guy who finally found Forrest Fenn‘s fabled treasure. The challenge is determining which torta to order. Our server recommended the torta al pastor, assuring me it’s marinated in pure goodness with plenty of pineapple for contrast. Truer words have rarely been spoken. Guaca Guaca constructs its tortas on a cottony soft telera bread roll as big around as a Frisbee. The torta is stuffed with meat, lettuce, tomato and avocado. It’s music to my ears and balm for my appetite.
19 October 2019: Guaca Guaca’s dessert menu is rather limited, but your sweet tooth will surely be sated with a wedge of pastel tres leches, a vanilla-flavored sponge cake drenched with a mixture of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, whole milk and cream then frosted with whipped cream. It’s an indulgent, over-the-top cake replete with moistness and not at all dense. In fact, you’ll be surprised at just how light this creamy confection is. A dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate round out one of our favorite of all Mexican desserts.
19 October 2019: Neither my Kim nor I are quite as fond of flan as we are of pastel tres leches. That doesn’t mean we don’t like it, but that given our druthers, we’d rather have pastel tres leches any time. Guaca Guaca’s flan is smooth and jiggly with a lightly caramelized topping. It’s also not overly sweet. We were hoping it would be topped with a creamy caramel sauce so we could say we had caramelo two ways–as a dessert and as a savory entree.
Guaca Guaca Tacos & Beer may not provide culinary voluptuaries with the taste bud awakening symphonies of flavors they crave, but it may just introduce them to new, vocabulary-expanding dishes. By the way, Guaca Guaca has other uniquely named entrees such as vampiros (vampires) and mulas (mules). We’ll certainly be exploring those soon.
Guaca Guaca Tacos & Beer
8001 Wyoming Blvd, N.E., Suite A1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2020
1st VISIT: 19 October 2019
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, Carne Al Pastor Momia, Guaca Dog, Flan, Pastel Tres Leches, Tacos, Guacamole, Carne Asada Caramelo, Carne Al Pastor Torta, Carnitas Vampiro