The act of creating proper carne asada, the type that sears your tongue with a hint of spice, melts against your teeth and rubs bits of cracked black pepper into the nooks of your mouth, and leaves an intoxicating tang of lime, cilantro and garlic behind is on par with Newton’s Divine Watchmaker setting the universe into motion. No offense to probably 90% of my blog readers, but even if you think you’ve eaten Mexican food before, you haven’t—unless you’re actually Mexican/have Mexican family or happen to live within 100 miles or so of the border.
It’s not often that I have been homesick on my travels, but occasionally the pangs of loss hit me, and they tend to hit me hardest in the stomach. So here I am in Madrid, typing away in the lobby of the hotel I’m staying at with my dad while he snores upstairs. We have a train to Barcelona tomorrow at 9:30 AM, which is five hours or so from now, and I’m wide awake. Madrid is the type of place where you can wander about and apart from the absence of the sun you won’t know the difference between day and night; when the morning rolls about, chances are the people staggering down the street right now will just switch places in bed with the ones getting up to begin their day (and a whole lot more probably won’t sleep at all, like this guy).
I had a nice enough evening with my dad—who I hadn’t seen since leaving home almost six months ago—and we did an old fashioned stroll through a couple of excellent tapas bars in our neighborhood, the excellently located Sol. The plate of seared Argentinean beef with chimichurri from Bayres was a delicious starter, and washed down by glasses of Ribera del Duero and Rioja wine (I was feeling more in the mood for the slightly sweeter Ribera) made a fine start to our gastronomic jaunt. We followed that up with two delicious plates of garlic mushroom stew and carmelized onions with brie at Taberna Kaixo, accompanied with two more glasses of Ribera. I should note that it’s a minor miracle my father had one glass of wine, let alone two; he doesn’t drink much to begin with, and he prefers wine to taste like grape juice. We sauntered over to one last place and shared a bowl of patatas in a nice salsa brava, freshly prepared with good amounts of garlic and pepper, and then went back to the hotel, where we went to sleep at the abysmally early hour of midnight.
I woke up three hours ago and decided to go for a short walk outside, and a few blocks down I noticed a shop advertising Mexican-style burritos and tacos. I wasn’t too hungry, but it should be clear by now that hunger and homesickness are two different things. So I ordered a taco, carne asada por favor, con guacamole (they charge extra for it here, the bastards), and the whole thing fell apart sloppily in my hands after the first bite. Rule #1 for a proper taco is that it should hold up, but this thing was as soggy as some of the forlorn fish and chips I occasionally ordered when drunk/reckless back in my Dublin days. A local guy came in and ordered the same thing and we struck up a conversation.
He asked me if I was Mexican, presumably because of my accent—which is the most flattering thing a Spanish speaker can tell an American boy like me—and I gave a short, sad laugh.
“No, I’m not Mexican but I live in San Diego, on the border,” I replied, “but if I was Mexican I would probably be too ashamed to eat this.”
I continued on, spilling my thoughts to a stranger in a faux-taco shop in Sol.
“You know, it’s been almost six months since I’ve been home, and I think I miss Mexican food more than anything else.”
“Really?” he asked me, eyebrows cocked up.
“Well, that, and two weeks ago I met a girl in Paris.”
“No, English. 18. Beautiful blue eyes, incredible body, she was sweet too. I convinced her to come with me south, and she did. We split up yesterday because I’m seeing my dad here in Madrid. I can’t really sleep right now and it’s because of her.”
“Ah, I see, the mind does travel when it comes to women,” was his sympathetic reply.
“Yes, it does. And that’s why I’m sitting here eating a sorry excuse for carne asada.” I bade him goodnight, shook hands, and walked back to the hotel.
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