Heneghans Abroad

Corrie, Mary, and Mike are living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hat Trick: At the Mexican Rodeo

"Hey Fernando, did you make love last night?" This from the announcer at the charreada, a kind of traditional Mexican rodeo. The guy would do a pretty lively rundown in Spanish during all the different events, but would bust out some intentionally funny stuff in English every once in a while, usually at the expense of a sunburned Canadian tourist, who always good-naturedly took it in stride. This was about as racy as things got at this thoroughly family friendly event.
Corrie took the day to do some work, so the Bear and I were chaperoned by our friends Meredith and Kylie, both of whom were decked out in cowboy hats, Meredith even sporting the boots. Mary, being the jealous type, somehow insinuated herself with the Texas-born Meredith and scored her own--Colts blue, naturally--cowboy hat by the end of the day.
After making our way through the tunnel of food stands getting ready for the day and the stalls selling saddles, belts, charro (cowboy) hats, lassos, and leather goods, we climbed up the tiered, circular stands to the sounds of a 10 piece Banda group. It was breezy and pretty cool for Vallarta, but it only dawned on me hours later that these guys in full orange corduroy outfits were belting out their lively music all day long in the full sun. No small feat.

The charreada is an event that celebrates the traditional skills of Mexican charros. Some of my favorites were Cow-Tripping, Lasso Show Off then Trip the Horse, and Bull Riding. Cow Tripping consisted of a frightened cow running away from the charro on horseback who had to grab its tail, twist his leg around it, and leverage the cow into flipping end over end. In my view, Lasso Show Off then Trip the Horse was the best event. In this one, the charro--sometimes on foot, sometimes on his horse--would show off his lasso tricks while his buddies chased a horse around the circle. After a few minutes of the showing off, he'd attempt to snag the horse's feet with his rope, yank back, and try to trip it, sending the horse flipping end over end. See the theme?

Mary and I were able to do some exploring on the grounds, including making our way to the practice area for the charros. This was great, as we got to see the charros practice their skills, and let me be clear: these guys were bad-ass. Mary agreed and she definitely had her favorite charro. His name was Francisco and he was a sincerely sweet man. As Mary was perched on the wall, doing her best cowgirl, he rode up on his horse. We talked a little, and Mary was intensely interested in his caballo, one of her favorite animals. Tentative at first, Francisco coaxed Mary into touching the horse's mane and ears. If that didn't seal the deal for Francisco, his next move did: he rode off and came back with a Fresca for Mary.

As the day wore on, more friends arrived and the charros seemed to get more into the competition. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the liter sized styrofoam cups they were carrying, the edges rimmed with dried chilis. Heating up, Mary and I headed for some freshly prepared tacos, salsa, and a Modelo. At a similar event in the States, you'd be eating something from Sysco, but even at the simplest stand here, they are cooking the meat right there. They were cutting up the fresh onion, radishes, chilis, and tomatoes, and preparing the salsa right in front of us. This, plus a good half hour of hanging with the Mexican kids in the Bounce House (Mary prefers to go shirtless), and you have a recipe for a lively dad and a soon to be napping daughter.

Before we left, Mary and I wanted to get closer to the action, so we headed down to the narrow aisle that runs around the ring. This was a very manly area and we were a bit out of our element. There were only men here, and these guys knew what was going on, as I think a lot of them were current or former charros themselves. At least Mary had her cowboy hat, which shortly came in handy. In Mexico, when doing the Lasso and Horse Trip, you get three opportunities to do so. If you snag the horse all three times, you are showered with hats from the audience. I knew this already from when Bugs Bunny would defeat the bull, but it works at a charreada too.

After success on all three attempts, a small, blue cowgirl hat rested in the dirt at the feet of the champion charro.

Love and horses,

Mike, Corrie, and the Bear

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Very Good Taco Moment

With Corrie and Mary enjoying the snow and cold back in Indianapolis these last weeks, I've been able to participate in one of my favorite pastimes here in Vallarta: sampling the taco stands. This post won't be a study on what differentiates them or which ones serve the best carne asada or which has the homemade salsas that will bring you to your knees. Saving that for a later post, this will recount just one ordinary lunch when this caballero was a bit hungover and in need of some tasty tacos to relieve the slight pounding in his brain.

In downtown Vallarta, there are certain cobble-stoned streets that are just rife with taco stands, little stalls not much bigger than your traditional hot dog cart, some with stools surrounding them, others with a counter where folks just lean and enjoy a snack. On Saturday afternoon, I decided to sample a few different ones, as I still really haven't settled on what will be my favorite. The first one, on Calle Honduras, I had been to before. It's next to the Oxxo--like a 7-11 or VP, but more garish and plentiful. No stools or counter, but they did have those cheap plastic chairs lined up along the sidewalk. I ordered two tacos adobada, which I believe is a kind of preparation for pork. Little cubes of pork on two tiny corn tortillas, drenched in pork fat. Topped with the usual here ("con todos"): whole Peru beans, a red sauce, onion, cilantro, and cabbage. Contrary to every Mexican restaurant I've been to in the States, all the taco stands here in Vallarta are finished off with shredded cabbage. The tacos were delicious in a very average way, and I moved on.

The next stop was a few blocks away, a little stall nestled next to the south side of a Centro grocery store called Ley. It's a busy street with a large construction site next to it, which I'm sure is a boon to this family business. I could hear the stall before I turned the corner, as they had a little jambox playing music for its patrons. Not great for the hangover, but the volume was relatively low and they did have chairs that sidled up to a bar area, all shaded by some trees from the wide sidewalk. There was a good crowd around this one, which generally bodes well. I sat down.

The menu was short, with tacos and quesadillas available, the former costing 8 pesos each, which is about 60 cents or so. I wanted to try their birria, but the Senora said they were out, so I'd be having their asada instead. "Dos, por favor." Only two, since I was planning on hitting up at least one more stand.

In my short time here, one of the things that separates a good taco stand from an average one is their tortillas. In the States, I think most taco-eating consists of the hard shell variety or the medium sized soft flour tortilla. Here, it is all about the small, soft corn tortilla. Many stalls make their own tortillas right in front of you and this taco stand did as well.

This stand had three women in its tight quarters: a grandma, a mom, and a daughter. All were similarly plump and they moved about their business in a simple, rhythmic way, one that appeared to require no thought. An orchestra of movement. The grandma would grab lime-sized balls of dough and put them in a wooden device. She put the dough between two blocks of wood and then brought a large hand lever down, squeezing the corn dough between the blocks of wood. Apply a little of her grandma-weight, and presto, she pulled out a thin pancake of future tortilla which was placed on a hot griddle. Mom would flip the tortilla two or three times while also moving the bits of asada around on the hot surface, all with her hands. Daughter was busy slicing all the acoutrements: cabbage, cilantro, and some side items which frequently come with your tacos at any stall worth its salt, namely radishes. With the tortillas done, mom loaded up the fresh, still quite warm tortillas with crispy bit of beef.

What I especially liked about this place was unique to the moment I experienced it. Elbow to elbow with a construction worker, a department store worker on a crutch, and an old Mexican man, I slowly eased my hangover on this unusually cloudy day in Vallarta. The women chatted and moved about the business of running their stand and their patrons made short work of their simple food. As I was enjoying all this, "Loba" a Shakira song that's been popular this year but is on its last legs, came on the radio. Everyone sitting there, young and old, knew this song. Everyone could probably sing at least part of the chorus, which includes an addictive howl of the titular wolf. The mom in her apron, flipping tortillas, reached up and turned it up as everyone began bobbing their head. "Ah-wooooooo!"

Couldn't leave the smells, tastes, and sounds of this taco stand, so I ordered another taco and asked the old man to pass me the guacamole sauce.

Love from Vallarta,