By Helena Hunt, Staff Writer
My family watches a lot of Food Network. I could say that it’s because we’re adventurous eaters with large gastronomic palates — but really I think that we just like food, TV and anything that marries the two. I grew up with Rachael Ray as my tour guide (to food and to life, really) on “$40 Dollars a Day.” Giada de Laurentiis felt like Ray’s rich, classy cousin who would maybe spend $40 on the dessert course and mascara but you can’t help but love her anyway. And then there’s Guy Fieri.
Guy Fieri got his start on the Food Network’s “Next Food Network Star,” where he bowled over the competition (get it, because he wears bowling shirts?) with his Heat Miser hairdo and chili bowls. I loved Guy. He combined Rachael Ray’s relatability with the seedy fun of an aging hair metal frontman (Bret Michaels, I’m looking at you). I rejoiced when he was crowned the Next Food Network Star, but mourned that his cooking show “Guy’s Big Bite” dulled his truly vibrant personality.
So it was with great anticipation that my family and I tuned into Guy’s own spin on $40 Dollars a Day, the now-celebrated Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (Triple D to the Guy-hards). Triple D allowed Guy to show his true, unabashedly bro-tastic persona. “This is so money!” he would proclaim over a steaming plate of sloppy joe’s. No, Guy, you are so money.
Triple D takes Guy to the most off-the-wall, out-of-the-way joints, as he calls them, in search of the greasiest, most obscure and least health-code friendly foods. Guy isn’t going to any chains or hoity-toity Applebee’s. He finds — by some superpower that must be related to his neon, gravity-defying hair — the most delicious foods in the places most of us would never step foot in.
So it is in honor of Guy’s spirit, if not his Ed Hardy shirts, that I bring to you Diners, Drive-Bys, and Dives, a guide to Waco, Texas’s own most obscure and wonderful pockets of barbecue, tacos, fried chicken and more.
This column isn’t for the Taco Z’s or Torchy’s of the world. In the spirit of Guy, I am going out of my way to find the corners of Waco that will both frighten and surprise you. Each month I will bring you a new culinary delight, one that is brought to you not by Yelp or upperclassmen’s recommendations but by my own tireless searching (read: driving around Waco until I find a place). These are the places we clueless students cruise right by on our way to What-A-Burger, never knowing just what we’re missing. Well, please thank me, because I am here to do your food-hunting for you.
This week’s drive-by is El Pollo Palenque, which operates out of a food truck at 1400 LaSalle Ave. I’ve often driven past this trailer just long enough to wonder whether it was open before continuing to Starbucks, probably. El Pollo, as I shall call it, is hard to miss: painted red and yellow, it loudly proclaims itself and its “mobil” status to the indifferent passersby of LaSalle. But should they be indifferent? The answer is no, dear reader. No, they should not be.
I arrived to El Pollo alone, my only company a man in dusty jeans riding a purple bike in circles through the gas station parking lot where the trailer is located. Three cars parked at the gas pumps by the food truck reassured me that this was a hopping place, but no one was pumping gas or sitting in the cars or anywhere at all, it seemed (except for Dusty Biker). Had I entered the Twilight Zone?
If “Twilight Zone” is a place where you can find some truly tasty tacos, then yes, yes I had. After parking my car I mounted the wooden steps to El Pollo’s window. It slid open to reveal a smiling teenaged girl, a reassuring sight in the sometimes dystopia-esque landscape of LaSalle. “What would you like?” she asked me. I pulled a Rachael Ray and asked the local what I should get. A cook emerged from behind my cashier friend and told me most people ordered tacos (for $1.75 each! Rachel would be proud!) with al Pastor, steak, or barbacoa. Well then, I would have two tacos, one al Pastor and one barbacoa! I didn’t know what those were, but does Guy ever really know what he’s eating? I doubt it.
After a wait much shorter than any I have ever endured at Torchy’s, I received my bounty. These tacos were a sight to behold. Festooned with cilantro, onions, a bright orange pepper, and their respective meats, they looked very money.
I ate my al Pastor first. Al Pastor, I later learned, is pork marinated in chilies, pineapple, and spices before being served to the unsuspecting customers of El Pollo Palenque. When I bit into the taco I was greeted by a burst of fruity, juicy flavor. “Hello, burst of flavor,” I answered. A rush of heat followed; I’d bitten right into that orange pepper, and tears flowed from my eyes. The flavors of meat and pepper duked it out in the tortilla, refereed by cilantro and onion. It was a delicious, meaty fight to the death, but (spoiler alert!) the salsa verde came in as a third contender and took them both down. You go, salsa verde.
I followed up the al Pastor, not with a full glass of water, but with my barbacoa taco. The barbacoa shared flavor duties with a heaping portion of caramelized onion, cilantro, and more onion. The barbacoa had a smokier flavor than the al Pastor, with less of the first taco’s juicy flavor. I must say (especially after I learned that barbacoa is made of cow heads) that the al Pastor and all the drama it brought to my life was my favorite of the two tacos.
El Pollo’s cook craned out of his little window to ask me how I liked my meal. “I loved it!” I told him, and thought, “I just road that trailer to flavortown.”
And you can ride that trailer too, in next month’s edition of Diners, Drive-Bys, and Dives.