Monday, November 25, 2013

Los Altos: A Gabacho Discovers Real Mexican Tacos

Judy and I recently read Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano (Simon & Schuster, New York: 2012) and we have been manic for Mexican food as a result. About the same time, while teaching an English class at Crafton Hills College on a unit related to food, Judy asked her students what their favorite Mexican food restaurants were. One of them mentioned Los Altos Taqueria (referred to as Los Alto Meat Market on Yelp) located at 245 N. Waterman Ave, Ste. B, San Bernardino, CA 92408 (909-888-8487). We decided to give it a try. And liked it.  And I've tried it again several times since then. And liked it. And I plan to go back again. And again. 

My favorite local Mexican food restaurants have been La Costa Mariscos and Mitla Cafe. I have been thinking that they were pretty authentic. But Los Altos is causing me to reevaluate my Mexican food preferences and what authentic is and means. I'm coming to realize that I am truly a gabacho (as Arellano says, only a gringo calls a gringo a gringo, a Mexican calls a gringo a gabacho). When we walked into Los Altos, we were the only gabachos in there. When we looked at the menu we were overwhelmed with new terms. For example, under tacos, we found asada and pollo and chile verde and pescado, all items we felt pretty comfortable with. But we also found pastor and carnitas and birria and trompa and tripa and buche and cabeza and cueritos and chicharron and other terms that we struggled to get our heads around. 

This called for some serious food research and I have been back sampling the various tacos and learning about them. And I still have more research to do, but I'll share with you what I've found. 

The tacos that I thought were pretty authentic at La Costa and Mitla, a fried crisp shell tortilla filled with shredded beef or chicken, what I might now call gringo tacos, are a big step above the ground beef tacos at Taco Bell, what I might call gabacho tacos, but several notches below Los Altos tacos which are real Mexican tacos. Not New Mexican, Old Mexican. I know that because when I order and ask what the "cueritos" means, they struggle to tell me in English, "it is pork, but slimier." When they call out the order number in Spanish, when the order is complete, and I don't respond, they follow up by calling it out in English, at least I think that is the language they are trying to use, and I show my receipt to the man behind the counter and he confirms, by nod of the head, that my order is indeed coming up. 

These tacos are $1.89 (with a few exceptions), come with two soft corn tortillas, one inside the other, diced onions, cilantro, green or red sauce (depending on the filling) and a lot of the specified filling. These put the tacos at La Costa and Mitla to shame. You won't find Los Altos on Trip Advisor, like you will La Costa and Mitla. That is because they are inhabited by gringos and gabachos. Los Altos is for Mexicans and I'm about ready to change citizenship. 

Birria Taco - goat stew meat made using a broth base of roasted peppers. Originally from Jalisco and a purported aphrodisiac, likely because of the "general randiness of the goats from which it is made." Very excellent.
Chicharron Taco - pork rind with some of the fat still attached. I have been familiar with the crisp chicharron, but these are apparently marinated and boiled in salsa and are soft, moist and packed with flavor. One of my favorites. 
Chorizo Taco - believe it or not, a term that originated on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) for several types of pork sausage. Cured smoked pork sausage made with chili peppers. This sausage is quite hard and packed with a strong flavor, unlike the uncooked chorizo fresco that  is moist and very runny. 
Cueritos Taco - pork rind (skin) without any of the attached fat (which makes it chicharron). The cueritos is very soft and has a smooth mouth feel and looks like large transparent onions. For the uninitiated, it has a gross factor based on looks alone. It is good, but not as flavorful as the chicharron. 
Lengua Taco - beef tongue with the outer skin removed. This was the most surprising to me and I've had tongue before that was very plasticy. This was very smooth and mellow, with a very mild taste and the texture of corned beef hash. This taco costs about $.40 more than the other tacos. I did not like this as well just because I like the stronger flavors.
Buche Taco - pork stomach. I've had buche before and really loved it. This is one of my favorite tacos, believe it or not. It is mostly gelatinous, with a little bit of crunch, some parts soft, like the cueritos, and the redder parts a little more chewy and flavorful. Packs a flavor wallop and no off-putting smell or taste. 
Trompa Taco - pork snout. A mix of different textures, some very stiff, not very gelatinous, spicier than lengua and not as spicy as buche. Quite good and much better than this guy's experience
Tripas Taco - small intestines cleaned, broiled and grilled. Thick, more earthy, strong, not as flavorful. My hispanic paralegal refused to eat a bite initially, then took one taste and refused more. This is the same paralegal that brought me home made menudo. I can eat these just fine, but they are toward the bottom of the list when compared with the others. 
Cabeza Taco - roasted head of the pig. It generally includes the eyes, lips, cheeks and other meats on the head. Very reddish brown, soft and pleasing texture. A little bit gelatinous, very mild, not huge flavor. 
Pescado or Fish Taco - breaded and fried fish in a coleslaw. Quite a bit different than the other tacos, texturally and taste-wise. I quite like it.  
Chile Verde - pork chunks in a green sauce. The pork is a bit chunky and hard. Okay, but many others I like more. 
Pastor Taco - pork marinated in dried chiles, spices and pineapple and cooked on a spit ("in the style of the shepherd"). Similar to the Turkish doner kebab. Developed in Central Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. Very strong and tasty.
I don't have a picture of the Carnitas Taco which is made of pork that has been slowly braised or roasted, or deep fried, then the heat is turned up and the outside is crisped, then the pork is shredded. A very good taco.

I have also tried a few non-taco items on the menu. For example a few tostadas. The bean tostada below has a thick layer of beans, some thick Mexican cream and a healthy sprinkling of white Mexican cheese. Very tasty.

Bean Tostada
Chorizo Tostada. I ordered this tostada without the Mexican cream and the chorizo was just overwhelming. Too much, too spicy. Chorizo is great on a taco, but too strong for the tostada. I would not order this again. 
Chili Relleno. The chili relleno is okay, but why eat okay when you can eat great tacos. 
Plenty more to explore and I plan to do so. After all, I have much to learn before I can be naturalized. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Capitol of West Virginia at Charleston

When we visited the capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia recently I was struck by how much it reminded me of a religious monument, and in particular, a cathedral: the huge, beautiful, awe inspiring dome across the street from the Kanawha River was not so much different from St. Peters down the road from the Tiber. It was a Sunday, and inside, only a few people were milling about. Its cavernous spaces were filled mostly with silence, but what little noise there was was accompanied by echoes down vast, empty halls. Marble floors, walls, pillars. Statues to the political and war saints. Ornamented ceilings. A sense of reverence. It is as grand and awesome and beautiful, or more so, than most of the religious buildings we've seen around the world. 
Front of the capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia.
Father Abraham, who presided over the creation of the state of West Virginia, watches over his progeny.
The back of the West Virginia capitol building mirrors the front, but a replica of the Liberty Bell replaces the statue of Lincoln. 
What was the cost of building this humongous, richly ornamented edifice and what impact did it have on the poor West Virginia coal miners and hill people? Who do the West Virginia politicians really represent as they spend their days in these beautiful halls? Of course, what of the poor of the Middle Ages, or of our day, and the same questions can and should be asked of the religious leaders as they go about the beautiful structures they inhabit. 
View inside the dome. 
A circular hole in the floors allows a view of both upper and lower halls.
Saint Stonewall Jackson
Ornamental ceiling.
Alabaster lamp.
Pillars, lamps, ornamental ceiling, chandelier.
Arches, domes, circular holes in floors/ceilings.
I understand that the basilicas of the Catholic church were inherited from their Roman fore bearers. When Constantine helped the transition of power from the gods of the Romans to the God of the Christians, he allowed the Christians to take over the Roman temples and government buildings. The structures of the church, such as dioceses, or wards, were often based on political structures. I guess, after all, governments now are fulfilling many of the functions that churches used to provide. Governments are our secular religion. Sometimes, there does not seem to be much difference. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

St. Peter's Catholic Church - Harpers Ferry, WV

St. Peter's Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is in a beautiful location on a hill above the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.  It is a stone's throw from John Brown's ill-fated raid of the U.S. arsenal in 1859, an attempt to get arms in order to forcefully free slaves. The raid is considered to be the beginning of the Civil War. Harpers Ferry was bombarded heavily during the Civil War, changing hands between the Union and Confederate sides 14 times and St. Peter's was the only church in town not severely damaged or destroyed.  By contrast, St. John's Episcopal Church, located just uphill, was heavily damaged. St. Peter's was built between 1830 and 1833. We did not have an opportunity to go inside, something I really would have liked to have done. There is a great article on the history of St. Peter's Church here.
St. Peter's from a street below, framed in fall colors.
St. Peter's rests on a rocky platform on a steep hill. 
View of St. Peter's from below.
A side shot.
A rock path up to the church. Light is bad which gives it a washed out color.
The front of St. Peter's.
The confluence of the Potomac River (to the left) and the Shenandoah River (to the right) becoming the Potomac River thereafter. 
The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah with St. Peter's in the foreground.
Ruins of St. John's Episcopal Church.
The confluence viewed from one of St. John's windows.
The entry to St. Peter's.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

Side view of St. Peter's from the uphill side.
Outer view of inside stained glass.
Old buildings in Harpers Ferry just below St. Peter's.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Black Squirrel

The black squirrel is a melanistic variety of the eastern gray squirrel. Black squirrels have one or two copies of a mutant pigment gene. If the squirrel has two copies, it will be jet black. If it has one copy, it will be brown-black. Gray mating pairs have two copies of a normal pigment gene and cannot produce black offspring. They can be found wherever eastern gray squirrels live. Overall, there there may be 1 black squirrel for every 10,000 eastern gray squirrels, although there are areas where the black squirrel is common, or even predominant. I found this black squirrel among other eastern gray squirrels on the grounds of the capital in Charleston, West Virginia. 
Black squirrel in Charleston, West Virginia
Black squirrel in tree in Charleston, West Virginia

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thomas Jefferson and Religion

We recently visited Charlottesville, Virginia and had an opportunity to tour Monticello, the home Thomas Jefferson designed and lived in. We also made a brief visit to the University of Virginia, which he founded. I came away with a greater appreciation for Jefferson's genius. I've always heard that Jefferson was a deist and that he pieced together his own version of the Bible. I decided to look at those issues when we got home.

I am awed when I look at his political pedigree. Jefferson was the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. During his presidency, he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France (in 1803) and sent out the Lewis and Clark Expedition (from 1804 to 1806). He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (in 1776), served in the Continental Congress, representing Virginia, and was the governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War (from 1779 to 1781). He was U.S. Minister to France (beginning in 1785), the first U.S. Secretary of State under George Washington (from 1790 to 1793), and the Vice President to the second president, John Adams. In a 1982 survey of historians, Jefferson was ranked as the fourth best president of the United States, after Lincoln, Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

From a religious standpoint, Jefferson was raised in the Church of England when it was the established church of Virginia and funded by Virginia tax money. Other churches in Virginia at the time, such as the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists, received no tax support. At age 16, Jefferson started college at William & Mary in Williamsburg and spent two years there studying mathematics, metaphysics and philosophy. He read the writings of John Locke, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton and was influenced by their philosophies. 

To hold political office in Virginia, as he did, you had to be Anglican and do nothing that did not conform with church doctrine. However, after the Revolution, the Church of England was disestablished in America and was reorganized as the Episcopal Church in America. Unfettered by the stricture of the religious requirement for political office, Jefferson took an active part in ensuring separation of church from the state. In 1779, he proposed "The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom" which was adopted in 1786. It is interesting, when considering his incredible achievements, that he lists his authorship "of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom" as one of the three on his tombstone. The statute provided for separation of church and state and that civil rights have no dependence on religious opinions.
Accomplishments listed on Jefferson's tombstone.
When religion was disestablished in Massachusetts, he wrote to John Adams, "I join sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a Protestant Popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character." When he was in France as French Minister, prior to the French Revolution, he felt that the Catholic clergy was too involved in matters of civil government. He wrote that "in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." Jefferson believed that the First Amendment to the Constitution required separation of church and state and he was quoted a number of times by the U.S. Supreme Court in cases interpreting the Establishment Clause, including the case of Reynolds v. U.S., which dealt with the LDS Church and bigamy. 

Up until about a year after his inauguration as President of the U.S., Jefferson attended the Episcopal Church regularly. Then he began attending church services in the House of Representatives which featured preachers of every Christian sect and denomination. Later in life, Jefferson attended church regularly, apparently the Episcopal church, but refused to be a godparent because he did not believe in the Trinity. 

Although Jefferson has been characterized as a Deist, he did not ever self-identify as a Deist. In a letter in 1819 he wrote, "You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."  He attended a Unitarian church  while living in Philadelphia and was a friend of Joseph Priestley, the minister. The Unitarians, like Deists, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1822 Jefferson wrote that the "genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." He also read the writings of Conyers Middleton, an English clergyman who questioned miracles and revelation. In a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote that the writings of Priestly and of Middleton are "the basis of my own faith...I cling to their learning, so much superior to my own." 

Jefferson believed in the "moral precepts of Jesus" which can't be found in "greater purity than in his discourses." The "doctrines of Jesus are simple" and lead to "the happiness of man." However, he believed that Jesus was surrounded by "dupes and imposters" that "mutilated" and "misstated" what he taught. In fact, he felt that the apostle Paul was the "first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus." In a letter to a nephew in 1787 he wrote, "Fix Reason firmly in her seat...Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear...Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you."

While president of the U.S., Jefferson started to piece together his own version of the Gospels. He literally cut and pasted, with a razor and glue, sections from the New Testament. The first draft was called "The Philosophy of Jesus of Abridgement of the New Testament..." This was followed later by "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth: Extracted Textually from the Gospels..." It was completed in about 1820. He left out the virgin birth, miracles, divinity of Jesus and the resurrection and retained the moral philosophy. Interestingly, he also retained the Second Coming and a future judgment, including a heaven and hell. These documents were only known to a few friends during his lifetime, but they were published after his death as the "Jefferson Bible." The text of the Jefferson Bible can be found here.

As mentioned, Jefferson designed his own house on a 5,000 acre plantation near Charlottesville, and named it Monticello. Monticello is depicted on the back of the $2 bill. Work began on Monticello in 1768 and Jefferson first moved in to an outbuilding (the South Pavilion) in 1770. It was a thrill to visit the study or cabinet where he did scientific observation, architectural drafting, reading and writing, including his famous correspondence with John Adams, and the alcove bed right next to it where he slept and where he eventually died.
A view of the back of Monticello.
A side view of Monticello.
Front view of Monticello.
Dome Room
Sky light in the dome.
View through a round window in the Dome Room.
View from a window off the Dome Room.
Jefferson's Tombstone which is on the grounds at Monticello.
Jefferson also founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville ("UVA") in 1819 and was the principal designer of the grounds. The design included the Rotunda on the UVA campus, which looks like an extension of Monticello, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Construction on the Rotunda started in 1822, but it was not completed until 1826 after Jefferson's death. UVA was different from other universities of that day as the campus surrounds the Rotunda which houses a library, rather than a church and reflects Jefferson's belief in separation of church and education. Members of the American Institute of Architects have identified the UVA campus as the most significant work of architecture in America. 
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia - designed by Thomas Jefferson.
A statue of Jefferson in front of the Rotunda.