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Spending Time at El Tsunami

Jul. 31, 2017
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My wife doesn’t know anything, yet. Doesn’t even suspect. Surprising, given my willingness, urgency even, to drive our yard debris to the city dump, to give up house AC comforts and Saturday freedom to head toward West Milwaukee’s tow lots and salvage yards and bafflingly named “Self-Help Centers.” It’s especially strange given my well-known allergy to doing work outside that isn’t sitting in a wicker chair with a cold one. Yet of late the clippings and branches have pitched perfect cover for a burgeoning summertime love affair, the fatty and satisfying kind for which Westside weekend errands act as perfect shade.    

At first glimpse El Tsunami (2001 W. Lincoln Ave.) is another of a piece in the unknowable strip of the greasy calorie corridor that is Lincoln Avenue. It’s an area so loaded and bursting that it can be daunting to find your way. In more ways than one—a recent trek saw the Citgo at 13th Street police-taped off after a midday shooting. And even when you get inside, and hoist the hefty laminate menu, you may not know if there’s any reason to be here, as opposed to say, La Canoa or Fiesta Garibaldi—both down the street, both brothers in food lists. In fact it is either the same owner at all these establishments, or somebody is approaching serious intellectual property infringement. Yet, here, unlike it’s Lincoln Ave. siblings, if you get just one glimpse of the plate of super-stuffed corn tortillas in front of the guy in the cowboy hat next you, it’s plain to see why “Taqueria” comes first in their titular list of offerings.   

But everything comes in its proper order. First you have to get there, get inside the intensely aromatic corner joint with a cozy bar and just three tables, ideally at a counter spot where you can watch a guy you instinctively think should have more room, charring chicken on the grill while throwing tortillas on the flat top, turning to grab some shrimp to drop in the fryer. All simultaneously. It’s the sort of “moves” Bourdain waxes about, performed in an equally cramped and public space, forcing the vents to work double time, filling nostrils and the aura with sizzle and expectation.

It’s a nice backdrop for the table salsa, which comes fast, which comes bursting like Guanajuato’s with fresh tomato at the front, but an underlying spicy smokiness. And then there’s a surprising avocado chunk, liberal amounts of cilantro, and more than a satisfying pinch of salt. It would make for a best salsa in town runner, if it didn’t struggle just to compete with one of it’s own—one that would come later. There’s also a pre-order of fish ceviche gratis with the house chips. It’s chunky, citrus-y, bursting with fresh lime juice, and kicked up by big hunks of jalapeno. It’s a smart tag team to jump-start an appetite.

It may be hard to go wrong with your order. Even an uninspired looking slab of cecina—a little pale, punchless and hammy-looking, uncut and peering out of it’s double corn sleeping bag—proves salty, smartly juicy, and a perfect canvas for the first of two squirt-tube salsas that appear when your order does: a pungent chipotle number rife with seeds. 

But it’s the second of these two ketchup bottle options where things get serious. Perhaps somebody, someday will be able to document why so many Southside taquerias offer some variation on this salsa verde: jalapenos or serranos, avocado, possibly cream, probably olive oil, and a velvety emulsification end product that always leaves me asking for a to-go styrofoam container. Mas grande, por favor. For now, it’s simply a ubiquitous sauce about town. Find a strain at the Buenavista taco truck, or either of the Taqueria Arandas locations, or an inspired gentrified take at Laughing Taco. But here it’s spicier, a touch creamier, somehow better. It’s as good as a meat topping gets.   

Put it on the chorizo and you have bliss. The spiced sausage is crumbled, subtly charred, and reeking of porkiness, with more of a bacon-y essence than standard taqueria fare, and pleasantly, not too much grease. But, yes, there is grease - it is chorizo after all, the king of comfort meats, and here it still knows how to do its tongue-rewarding work.   

Or you can spurt and let it sink within the already-saucy, shredded strips of desebrada, a stewed, deep-flavor beef that feels like Sunday at Abuela’s house, the kind of on-the-stove-all-day affair where you know what’s for dinner as soon as you hit the door, where you can smell beef as much as taste it. Or you can just let the sauce swim atop the crisped, light-by-comparison whitefish.     

The only mistake one might make is not saving room, or, regardless of room, not ordering the tacos al carbon—the house version of steak, a name meaning “cooked over charcoal.” Especially since by now we’ve come to the point that “carne asada” has basically become the “is what it is” of taquerias, like asking for “meat” tacos, so hard is it to distinguish between one or another. It’s a shoulder shrug approach to a taco filling order. Which is maybe why the carbon are so lovable. Or maybe they are perfect. The little morsels smack of the grill, with an almost suspicious smokiness, finger-soaking juiciness, and a certain intangible satisfaction that acts as a reminder why we would always pick Mexican over a steakhouse. The difference is most enjoyable when you get that green sauce dribbling toward your wrist, and it runs in rivulets with meat grease, and a cilantro chunk, and you give an unabashed lick.

While it’s hard to imagine more flavor bang for your buck-seventy-five, other trips and other appetites might be rightly given over to the entrees. The chalices bursting with cocktail sauce-swimming shrimp seem popular. And if you know what you're doing, fork-work can be rewarded by any of the whole fish options swimming in a pungent, potent garlic sauce. (Fillets are available for those less inclined to Hemingway-esque battle with a fish body, and an eye that always seems to be looking into one’s very soul). There is also anything “a la diabla.” Sinaloa meets Buffalo in this sauce—bright red, tangy, buttery, smooth, it’s incredible on crisped shrimp and next to the spicy potato salad, but it seems not far away from a serious chicken wing contest.   

Either way, it’s important to remember you’ll be hungry later—after you get home and kick back in the yard and pretend that a well-maintained lawn has been the ticket of satisfaction for this Saturday. For takeaway, for rewarming when you can be alone and midnight debaucherous, a torta is the order. Any of their lovingly prepared meats folded tightly into an oil-slicked bolillo roll make for a well-maintained package: easily handled, not overly done in lettuce or filling, the right amount of carb-y, meaty satisfaction with jalapeno wedge, perfect for dousing in the city’s best sauce, for stealing a few bites before bedtime, easy to conceal from prying eyes on a low, back fridge shelf.      

It’s always good to know it’s in there, and to have a living, giving reminder of a memorable lunch. And it’s good to know of another, and the best, reason, to drive west on Lincoln.

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