I'm not of Mexican descent. I haven't been to Mexico. I haven't bought a taco from a truck in California. I know Thalia, but I barely even remember the plot of Rosalinda.
Having just revealed my very limited knowledge about Mexico, I admit to being the least credible judge of authenticity, especially when it comes to Mexican cuisine.
But that wouldn't stop me from encouraging you to go ahead, and make that long (and most of the time, slow) drive from Ortigas to Granada. Take that challenging U-turn to the Petron gas station situated just a few meters away from Jose O. Vera Street because at that very gas station, just past that ubiquitous sticker-decorated glass door on the left, are beef tamales that may be the best you'll have in the city.
Hermanos Taco Shop has been busy for a quite while now. This humble taqueria strays from the ways of a stereotypical Mexican joint. There are no tacky sombrero props, Maize-yellow walls and mariarchi music in here. Instead, there are multi-colored posters that educate gringos about the different ingredients essential in Mexican cooking. The music? It's Mexican, but not the type that would make you feel like you're on the set of Nacho Libre.
At the helm of the kitchen is Chef Rene Rodriguez, a Mexican through and through, who's worked at the kitchens of California's biggest hotels. His story is a familiar tale we've all heard before: He needed to move in to the country to be with his family. After quite a while of eating adobos and sisigs (which he, by the way, thinks are delicious), he missed eating Mexican food (“The real deal-- not those thick and sweet salsas you have here,” he says). He went to each and every taco joint in the metro in search of his comfort food. Disappointed, he decided to open up his own taqueria. “Manila needs to know what Mexican food is,” became his new-found advocacy.
Chef Rene Rodriguez
Rolled Tacos, one of his favorites
The menu at Hermanos is accordingly basic: there are burritos, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, and some specialty dishes posted on top of the counter. First-time customers are advised to order Fish Tacos (P150) for starters. According to Chef Rene, this is the dish to order to enlighten diners on how different the “real tacos” are from what we have here. “Go. Try it. Figure it out,” he dared me on our first meeting.
I carefully transferred one taco from the plate to my hand. Okay. The tortilla wrap is decidedly soft-- a far cry from the hard shells available in the metro. “Give a Mexican a hard-shelled taco and he'll probably return it to you,” Chef Rene said as he emphasized on the importance of freshly prepared tortilla wrap.
The wrap is soft, but not just pita bread-like soft. It has that lazy rubbery bounce-- that tendency to flap. As directed, I squeezed the lemon wedge, draining some of its contents all over the taco at hand.
One bite into it and I knew exactly why the foreigner (a regular, I was told) at the next table ordered two plates for himself. The overall texture (easy to tear but chewy, with a simultaneous crunch from the freshly-fried dory) is enough to excite your mouth. It's amazing how something as simple as battered fish strips, tucked in a soft corn tortilla wrap with shredded cabbage and a generous dollop of sour cream, could have such a powerful impact. This unassuming fish taco is easily the best of its kind I've tasted in Manila.
The Grande Carne Asada Chips (P320) (or Nachos to many) that came next was as impressive. This comfort dish, usually shared as snack or appetizer elevated itself from the rest of the metro's nachos by employing crisp tortilla chips made from scratch everyday, and sirloin strips instead of ground beef.
“Wow, beef strips huh. That's generous of you,” I told Chef Rene then further inquired if that's the way they do it in his hometown. “There, a taqueria has a big, big slab of beef. One kitchen worker would be in charge of chopping the beef into strips. That's all he does in a day. The one next to him will be in charge of assembling it to a taco, nacho, burrito, or whatever the customer orders. Then you pick. You want salsa? You want guacamole? You want pico de gallo? They'll give it. No one uses ground beef. No one scrimps,” he enthusiastically shared.
No scrimping on guacamole either
And because nachos are only as good as their salsas, I have to stress that Hermanos' salsa, a watery puree of cilantro, chillies, and tomatoes , is such a splendid mix you'd better not miss. It's not tomato paste thick as what we're used to. It's certainly not sweet. It's hot, but not mouth-searing. “Now you know how a real salsa tastes,” he told me.
Half-full, I figured if my stomach's still up for a burrito. They're huge, I was told. Afraid that the All-Meat Burrito (P350) will overwhelm me, I asked the chef for something else-- something not readily available around here in the metro. “Ah! Tamale,” he exclaimed like an eager little boy.
When Filipinos think of Mexican food, their minds often conjure images of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos. If you want to advance your knowledge beyond these dishes, try Hermanos' Beef Tamales (P320)-- two steamed seasoned corn masa, wrapped in corn husks, with hidden beef strips inside. It's supposed to be the original recipe from which the Kampampangan tamales (those bright green, suman-like creatures that are never absent in my Pampangueno relatives' dining table) are based from.
The dish looks quite simple. On the plate lies two robust rolls of corn masa, with a cupful of cheese generously poured on it.
I sliced a portion for myself. “Oooh! Soft like mashed potatoes,” I muttered in anticipation. I took one bite. “Ohhrwooow!” I exclaimed (I forget my manners in gustatory highs like this). What is this? Why is it as soft as potatoes but ten times more wonderful? And the beef! Oh the beef's bold and spicy flavors are magnified when eaten along with the grainy corn masa. My head was filled with wonder. Bite after bite, I render myself to the same joyous moment of eating it for the first time. After finishing a whole roll, I professed my love for it. “I'm in love with this. Really, really, in love,” I told my friend who was having the same food high.
“This is my favorite,” I boldly told chef.
“You'll come back for it?”
Like any other person who has yet to travel to Mexico, or even Southern California, I am not in a position to judge whether or not a taqueria is authentic or not. All I know is, I'm coming back to Hermanos this weekend for another date with my beloved tamale.
That whole Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, Mex-Mex issue you're so concerned about? I suggest you to just toss it out the window and take your bite at the tamale. It's a sin to make it wait.