Students Take A Taco Tour

April 22, 2009|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Megan Ryan knows the tacos in her part of town. Over the past four months she has eaten an estimated 80 of them from about 20 different Baltimore eateries, most near her Fells Point home.

She has discovered that a taco labeled "meat" can have one of a dozen different fillings, everything from steamed flank steak to "lengua," better known as tongue, a favorite offering of the taco truck that sets up shop on South Broadway near Bank Street.

She has decided that the tilapia cooked with cloves from Arcos Restaurant is a hit. But the orange roughy topped with orange marmalade from Annabel Lee Tavern is a mess.

If visitors were hunting for a goat taco, she would direct them to La Guadalupana, a combination restaurant and grocery store at Eastern Avenue and Wolfe Street. There, they could get a mango from the grocery store side of the operation, slice it and place it on a taco cooked in the restaurant.

Thanks to some students at Maryland Institute College of Art, Ryan's taco reconnaissance, along with illustrations and a map, will soon be available to the eating public.

Fourteen members of Rebecca Bradley's MICA class, called Illustrating the Edible, are in the process of putting the information on the Web site baltimoretacos.com. The site is expected to be completed this week.

In addition, illustrations of the taco adventure are on exhibit on the third floor of MICA's Fox Building at Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues.

The taco project has been a joint undertaking of Bradley, who is assistant chair of MICA's illustration department, and Ryan, who works for Walden University. The two met through the Baltimore chapter of Slow Food, a group Ryan once headed. The students in Bradley's classes, armed with Ryan's notes, were assigned taco eateries to visit. They drew illustrations of the establishments and the fare.

Although the project was dubbed a taco tour of Baltimore, the scope was limited to locations that the students could easily reach by public transportation, water taxi, bicycle or on foot. "The neighborhoods were South Baltimore, Federal Hill, Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton," Ryan said.

Bradley said one reason she chose tacos as the subject matter was that they fit a student budget. Most of the fare sampled started at about $2.50 and climbed toward $10. The student assigned to Blue Agave got a scare when she saw the $23 price tag of the taco entree on the main menu. But Ryan advised her to order from the bar menu, where two tacos go for $6.

In class the other day at MICA, Ryan outlined four elements that she thinks make a successful taco. "The filling must be spot-on, be correctly cooked and nicely seasoned," she said. "The tortilla should be fresh, and the picante sauce, red or green, must be paired with the filling."

Finally, toppings matter, she said. "The chopped radishes and lime wedges served at Yellow Dog Tavern and Arizona and the fresh cheese at Blue Agave really make a difference," she said.

The taco eaters experienced some of the difficulties of compiling a food guide. A few of the establishments closed after the students had visited them. Some changed their taco offerings, requiring - for instance - the student who had drawn an illustration of the grilled rockfish taco at the Austin Grill to add an illustration of the grilled red snapper taco, the new fish taco.

Then there was the problem of finding willing companions to venture to the taco emporiums. "It was easy the first time," Ryan said. "But when you ask them the second or third time, it was a definite no."

Angela Hogarty, a senior from Baltimore who had snagged a friend for two visits to Nacho Mama's, ran out of luck when she tried for a third trip. The friend, she said, sent her a text message: "No More Taco Adventures!"

Maggie Cerveny, a junior from Long Island, N.Y., is a vegetarian. So, when she visited the taco truck on South Broadway, she brought along her boyfriend to sample the tongue taco. He loved the lengua taco, while she was content to fashion a miniature model of the truck for the class project.

In its written work, the class was careful to list only the best taco at each spot. The students did not do a comparative ranking of restaurant tacos. But some eaters were willing to say they did find tacos that were worth a second visit.

Rosemary Davis, a senior from St. Louis, said the tacos at El Taquito Mexicano on Eastern Avenue won her over.

And when I pressed Ryan, asking her if she were to go to the gallows tomorrow which tacos she would request as her final meal, she gave a dual response.

"I would probably put my fate in the hands of the chef at Arcos," she said mentioning its tilapia taco and its grilled pork-and-pineapple taco.

"Then, for a second stop, I would get the bean-and-cheese taco at El Taquito. It is pure comfort food," she said.

So, a few hours after class was dismissed, I headed to Arcos and El Taquito and grabbed the recommended tacos.

The pork taco, with cubes of flavored meat mixed with bits of pineapple, was terrific, as was the Arcos fish taco. The bean-and-cheese offering from El Taquito was soothing.

Those two spots made my personal taco map.

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