Monday, December 24, 2007

Cow Tongue Tacos - Enjoying Georgia's Immigration Problem

A recent AJC article cited U.S. Census Bureau data showing that more than half of Georgia’s almost million-strong immigrant population is here illegally. Georgia has the third-highest ratio of any state in that category, posting a 53 percent mark trailing only Arizona at 65 percent and North Carolina at 58 percent.

With all the financial strain this puts on the taxpaying citizens of the state, it would be easy to get bogged down in debates over what can be done to stem the tide of immigrants to Georgia or allay its societal burden. While I do think this is a serious problem that needs fixing, I’ll leave you to the AJC article for more information. I want to look at something more tangible and less controversial—the opportunity for adventure these sub-legal enterprises and communities create.

A few friends visited us for Thanksgiving, and we drove toward Albany to visit my in-laws. One of them had a hankering for good Mexican food, but the road signs and billboards on that stretch of I-75 weren’t leading us to anything. Just when we thought we might have to go for some greasy American fast food, bold-red, backlit letters appeared on the western horizon: El Carneval. Certainly this was our promised land, flowing with cheese and salsa.

After a winding exit and a brief gas stop, we headed toward what we thought would be an authentic taco stand in that glorious strip mall just north of Crisp County. But as we approached, signs in the window and dim lights inside told another story. El Carneval was a grocery store, and it wasn’t even open this late in the evening.

Disheartened, we decided to drive down the road a ways to see if we could find a Wendy’s or something. A hulking building that at first glance looked like an abandoned shopping center loomed on our right. I was about to keep driving, but neon lights and palm tree murals in a window on the end of the shopping center caught someone’s eye. The sign read “La Playita Taqueria,” and the sunny seascapes on the window promised that the “Little Beach” taco shop would be an unlikely oasis.

A sign on the door welcomed costumers (not customers), and I jokingly scolded my friend for not bringing his clown suit. A Puerto Rican beauty pageant blared on the TV, and a lone Latino sat sleepy-eyed at a table. We seated ourselves and waited for the one-woman restaurant crew to greet us and take our orders. True to obnoxious gringo form, we requested chips and salsa, only to find that such American indulgences weren’t offered here. This place was Mexicano autentico, our waitress said.

If that’s the case, we resolved, then we might as well have a cultural experience. When she returned, my friend ordered beans and rice for an appetizer, a plate of steak and eggs and tacos for his wife and daughter. Katy, ever cautious, stuck to beef tacos and ordered a bottle of Jarritos fruit soda.

“Jou want strawberry, grapefruit or tooti frooti?” the waitress/cook asked. Katy smiled at the cute way the lady’s accent turned the y into a j and shaped the last word, which is a bit funny even without the accent. She eventually decided on the grapefruit flavor, a favorite of Mexican laborers at construction sites, I had learned during three summers as sprinkler pipe fabricator and installer.

I took the cultural experience a bit farther. If you’re adventurous with food, sometimes it comes back and bites you. Other times, your bites become surprisingly rewarding. Along with a set of two beef tacos, I asked for a taco featuring a dish that I saw as intriguing and befitting of this strange evening, a taco featuring grilled and chopped lengua de vaca, cow’s tongue.

As the Puerto Rican beauty queens cooed on TV and the waitress cooked, a few other Mexicans walked in and gave us the same kind of looks I’ve gotten in China as the only foreigner for miles around. With construction-stained jeans and disheveled hair, they looked pretty rough-and-tumble, so it’s unlikely that we scared them away. But either our strange presence or the slow service sent them packing after a few impatient minutes.

We were alone with our server, who promptly brought my cow tongue and a variety of fiery sauces to douse it in. I would need them, ironically, to dull my palate as I ate the little cubes of tongue, which still had the bumpy taste buds on them. Wrapped in a warm, homemade corn tortilla and blanketed with beans, rice and sauce, the tongue was actually pretty tasty. Although she knows I’ve eaten rat and dog meat before, Katy for some reason didn’t want to kiss me later that night. I think she said something about not wanting to French kiss a cow. My only consolation was that I had added another culinary trophy to the long-running list I’ve built over four different trips to China.

I have no clue whether La Playita is a legal business, but going by the studies, at least two of the four Mexicans that shared our time there were in the U.S. illegally. The interesting thing is that although they have come into the state I’ve lived in my whole life, in that community, I was the foreigner. Only in America. With all our problems in this country, we have loads of privilege and almost as many adventures for the taking.

Photo: the U.S. Capitol, Copyright Trevor Williams, 2007

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