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12 Catt. 2: In re El Chilango

2012 September 12
by CATTLEYA, J.

CATTLEYA, J., delivered the opinion of the Cart, in which JEREMY, C.J., concurred.

During my travels over the Supreme Cart’s summer recess, I came across a Mexican food truck (trailer, really) in Greenacres, Florida. Tacos al Carbon offered a wide variety of tacos. First, there were the options that you find at your local Chipotle chain, like steak and barbacoa. Then there were the choices typically found at Mexican restaurants, like carne molida (ground beef), al pastor (pork), and chorizo (pork sausage). And then–most interestingly to my palate–came the less usual options, like lengua (beef tongue), tripa (beef tripe), and chicharron (pork skin).

Tacos al Carbon in Greenacres, FL

Although the Florida-situated Tacos al Carbon fell outside the Cart’s jurisdiction, I stopped by to sample a taste of the larger food truck scene. I ordered a crunchy taco with carne asada (grilled steak), a soft taco with lengua, and another soft taco with tripa. My $5.99 three taco lunch special came with rice and beans.

Three Tacos with Rice and Beans

Upon my return to the Cart, I was pleased to discover a Mexican food truck within our jurisdiction — El Chilango (“EC”) in Arlington — that also served up tacos with unusual meat fillings. Even more exciting, the tacos were of the authentic Mexican kind, rather than the more common Tex-Mex variety. (Think cilantro, onion, lime and spicy salsa in place of tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole.) The Justices of this Cart immediately granted cartiorari to EC.

El Chilango in Arlington, VA

  I. TRUE “STREET FOOD”

Because there is no question that tacos are “street food” as this court has defined the term, EC’s  tacos must be affirmed unless the Cart can meet the high burden to prove that EC’s tacos do not belong on the street. See In re Eat Wonky, 2 Catt. 5 (2011) (defining street food as “the kind[] of food[] that can be cooked in front of you and [is] meant to be eaten with your hands, without forks, while standing up”); In re Big Cheese, 6 Catt. 2 (2012) (explaining that street food is entitled to the presumption of affirmance); In re Sol Mexican Grill, 9 Catt. 4 (2012) (finding that tacos are street food). This Cart cannot even begin to rebut the presumption of affirmance.

II. EL CHILANGO

EC is a quiet member of Arlington’s food truck scene. It does not rely on splashy graphics or social media. It parks in the same spot in a residential neighborhood every Monday through Saturday from 11am to 8pm. Although it’s within walking distance (around 10 minutes) from the Rosslyn metro station, it’s out of the way to grab a quick lunch or dinner, especially considering the line of food trucks and carts that are conveniently parked right outside the metro station. EC is parked in an area (usually near 14th Street N. and N. Queen Street) that doesn’t benefit from heavy foot traffic, which means that most diners purposely go out of their way to get to EC. EC’s location might seem like a strike against it, but it’s actually a great sign in favor of it. When paying customers go out of their way just to get to an eating establishment, it’s usually an indication that the food is worth it. And, in EC’s case, it was. (Perhaps another sign of how good the food is, EC recently launched a brick-and-mortar location at 1119 V St. NW in the District.)

EC’s menu is simple. It makes tacos, and only tacos. There are six types:

  1. pollo (chicken);
  2. al pastor (pork);
  3. carne asada (grilled steak);
  4. chorizo (pork sausage);
  5. mixto (mix of carne asada and chorizo); and
  6. lengua (beef tongue).

EC’s tacos are soft, served on toasted corn tortillas. Tacos are topped with onion and cilantro. Fresh radish slices and chopped cucumbers are served on the side. EC provides lime wedges to squeeze on top of the tacos and sets out bottles of salsas verde and rojo on the counter for you to serve yourself. Each taco is a very affordable $2 (cash only). Cf. In re TaKorean, 1 Catt. 4 (2011) ($3.50 per taco or $9 for three tacos); In re Sol Mexican Grill, 9 Catt. 4 (2012) ($7 for three tacos).

Round 1: Tacos with Carne Asada, Pollo, Al Pastor, Chorizo, Lengua, and Mixtos

I ordered one of each. Then after I cleaned off my plate, I went back for another chorizo and carne asada.

Round 2: Tacos with Chorizo and Carne Asada

It is the tradition of this Cart to review each component of a food truck’s offerings, see, e.g., Takorean, 1 Catt. 4, and I see no reason to change that now.

Corn tortillas. Each taco came with two corn–not flour–tortillas. They were lightly grilled. It would be a mistake to view the double layer as a mere stomach-filler; it had an important purpose. Even if the meat juices soaked through one layer, and even if the sogginess caused that tortilla to tear, there was another layer to keep the taco neatly together. This double layer particularly saved the day for the chorizo taco, which came with the sort of eating experience that causes delicious juices to run down your chin and all over your hands.

Meats. All of the meats were well-cooked and tender. The chorizo, carne asada, and al pastor  were especially juicy and flavorful. The chorizo was spicy and salty, the carne asada was nice and beefy, and the al pastor was sweet and smokey. The first two meats left a stronger impression on my palate, as evidenced by my return for second helpings. My law clerk opted for seconds of the chorizo and al pastor. I confess that my preference for asada over al pastor might have more to do with my upbringing in a no-pork kitchen and less to do with the actual merits of the two meats. See In re Floridano, 2 Catt. 2 (2011) (Cattleya, J., concurring) (“Due to my father’s religious restriction on the eating of pork, my mother never cooked it . . . .). The easy agreement that my law clerk and I reached on the chorizo (in spite of my upbringing in a no-pork kitchen) should be a sign of just how delicious it was. Even though the pollo was seasoned sufficiently, it came off as bland in comparison to the pork and beef options. This was not surprising, given the relatively mild flavor of chicken. After all, who would want chicken when you could have chorizo? See In re Red Hook Lobster Pound, 2 Catt. 1 (2011) (“[N]o one in their right mind orders shrimp over lobster.”); In re El Floridano, 2 Catt. 2 (2011) (“[N]o one in their right mind orders [tempeh] over [pork].” (internal quotation marks omitted)).  If I were to do it again, I would eat the pollo taco first, so that my taste buds weren’t coated with the delicious memory of the other meats. Finally, the lengua wasn’t bad, but it didn’t shine either, as I know lengua can. The too-finely chopped lengua had lost most of its firm yet spongy texture and its deep flavor. If I hadn’t known that I was eating lengua, then I wouldn’t have known that I was eating lengua. (I leave it to the reader to decide whether that is a good or bad thing.)

Toppings. Cheese, sour cream, and guacamole were not on EC’s authentic Mexican menu, and they were not missed. The onioncilantro, and lime provided a cool and fresh topping to balance the heat of the meat and spiciness of the salsas. Both salsas added a garlicky zing that kicked up the flavors of the tacos, though the salsa rojo had a hotter zing than the salsa verde. The more salsa there was, the better the taco tasted. The side of sliced radishes and chopped cucumbers also worked to cool down the heat. In addition, they gave a nice, crisp bite to set off the textural softness of the tacos.

III. CONCLUSION

EC knows how to make a taco. Sure, a couple of the meat fillings (chicken, lengua) didn’t stand out when compared to the excellent quality of the rest (chorizo, carne asada, al pastor), but it was like comparing filet mignon and lobster. One of them had to come in at the bottom of the rankings, but they were all still good. (If forced to rank, I would pick: 1. chorizo, 2. carne asada, 3. al pastor, 4. pollo, 5. lengua.)

The bottom line is this: EC made authentic tacos that didn’t disappoint my stomach or drain my wallet. EC’s tacos are exactly what should be coming out of a food truck’s kitchen. The tacos are meant to be eaten with your hands (even if I had wanted a fork, I didn’t see any). The tacos are meant to be eaten while standing up (in fact, you have to unless you want to sit on the sidewalk). What’s more, I want to go out to eat EC’s tacos because I can’t cook them myself at home. I could try, but it surely would not compare. I will return to EC — and soon.

AFFIRMED.

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