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A young friend and his mother introduce us to the joys of beef cheeks

My friend Jorge recently graduated from University High School and is on his way to the Big Apple later this summer to enter the Fashion Institute of Technology. He's an amazing guy, this Jorge--exceedingly bright, impressively articulate and direct, creative and adventurous. One of the great things for me in the past couple of years has been to watch him grow into his own being. Alright ... it's been scary at times--I did say he's adventurous--but the bottom line is that he is becoming a remarkable man and a thoughtful human being.

Through him, I've been given some insights into music, contemporary ideas and popular culture that I would otherwise never have experienced. He's shared CDs with me that I can assure you I would never have heard (I'm listening to Buddha-Bar VII as I write this) and has told me his own tales of a city completely unknown to me. At the age of 18, he knows more about some things than I ever will, learned with a courage that sometimes leaves me breathless with concern.

And through Jorge, I have developed a deep appreciation for his mother's cooking. Silvia Perez was born in Tijuana and works as a seamstress. She moved to Tucson from Los Angeles with her family in the mid-1980s, and she's raised Jorge and his younger sister. The family lives in a Habitat home they acquired eight years ago.

Once in awhile, Jorge favors me with something his mama has made. He also tells me his father is a great cook, but I haven't had the opportunity to try his food yet. A few months ago, Jorge arrived with a couple of new CDs and tacos dorados, crisply fried tortilla pockets filled with mashed potatoes and beef. They were gone in a flash. He's talked about her milanesas--breaded strips of beef fried in oil--and a great chicken soup she makes with zucchini, broccoli, potatoes and carrots.

The other afternoon, Jorge called to see if I had plans for dinner. He had a date, but his mom had made fresh corn tortillas and a broth of beef cheeks and it was soooo good and I had to try it and what time could he come by but not too late because he had to be somewhere at 8?

Beef cheeks.

This is also known as face meat, and it's a delicacy in many places, whether from a cow, sheep or other domesticated critter. The meat is very tender and has lots of flavor. And what difference, honestly, is there between eating the meat between the ribs of a cow and this?

He arrived in a few hours with all the fixins, including freshly made corn tortillas. We ladled the broth into a soup bowl to share, and Jorge chopped the meat and made the taquitos. Delicious! The next day, after pinning his mother down and translating the recipe, he e-mailed it to me. And you, gentle readers, have it below. A note: While beef lips are NOT available at my neighborhood Bashas' (and I got a weird look from the meat guys there when I asked) or at A.J.'s up the hill, they are to be found at the other corporate arm--Food City. Beef cheeks there are $2.19 a pound, by the way.

Several nights later, Jorge, Andrew and I headed to the southside to sample some other face-meat offerings. Noah planned to meet us, and there were several places we were going to hit, but they'd closed by the time we pulled up. At each place, I'd call Noah on his cell to redirect him to the next place--he said, after the third time, that he felt like a paparazzi rushing off to a new sighting. Jorge was driving exuberantly; the rain was coming down; the windows were cracked with the wind whipping in. Andrew was snapping photos of anti-Wal-Mart bumper stickers; the long version of "American Pie" was blaring from the radio; I knew all the words, and the world seemed right.

We landed at Tacos Apson, a taqueria on South 12th Avenue across from Pueblo High School. Tacos Apson is not, as Noah put it, into presentation per se, but is into very tasty items served almost immediately: tacos, tostadas and burros with tongue, beef cheeks, rib meat, pork and much, much more. There's a small counter with some stools, a side serving table with salsas, sliced cabbage, peppers, a patio (fully occupied) and lots of pictures on the wall of the Agua Prieta band from which its name comes. We had a slew of tacos and washed them down with tamarindo, horchata and jamaica. The tacos de cabeza were super, as were the tacos razurado (shaved rib meat). The tab for the four of us was $43 and some change.

So there you have it--more food tales from my city. And more important, the following recipe from Jorge's mama.

TAQUITOS DE CABEZA Y SALSA

courtesy of Silvia Perez

Filling:

  • 5 pounds of beef cheeks
  • 1 whole garlic bulb
  • 1/2 onion
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt
Salsa:
  • One bunch cilantro
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 10 tomatillos
  • 5 jalapenos
  • 1 minced clove of garlic
  • 1/2 tablespoon of salt
  • Fresh limes
  • 24 small corn tortillas
Place meat, the garlic bulb, onion and salt in pot with six cups of water. Cook on medium flame for approximately two hours or until meat is soft. Once meat is cooked, remove and chop it. Reserve broth for stock or as soup.

To make salsa, husk and boil the tomatillos with the jalapeno peppers. Blend the tomatillos and the jalapeno with the minced garlic and the 1/2 tablespoon of salt.

Place chopped meat on a maize tortilla; put cilantro and onion on the meat, followed by the salsa and lime juice. Serves eight.


FROM THE INBOX

To Joan B: I'm glad your shelves are bowed with cookbooks, too. Do they reproduce themselves in some weird sort of autobibliogamy? Thanks for the Cookin' in Brooklyn tip. If I ever achieve cabledom, I'll tune in.

To M&M: Just tell me when. Mystery Dinner Guests Who Are Faithful Readers--how very cool!

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