It was swelteringly hot, my T-shirt was drenched through and the Mexicans were staring at me. “Jackie,” my friend hissed at me. “Stop taking photos.” I lowered my camera and pretended I was just like any other normal person. Except that I was Asian. And British. And I was taking photos of my food. Yes friends, Taco Haven in San Antonio is not a place you want to stand out when you are all of these things. It is, however, a place you want to go and enjoy barbacoa, aka cow’s face, on a Sunday.
The friend I was staying with had been shocked that I had never had true Mexican food and took it upon himself to make sure that I had some while I was in San Antonio – you simply didn’t get good Mexican food in London. When I tried to mention Taco Bell as a basis for comparison he went silent for a moment before saying in a low, dangerous voice, “don’t ever mention that place to me again”. I can’t help it; I just love their chalupas. He promised me real authentic Mexican food and decided that a Sunday barbacoa was going to be my rite of passage.
Barbacoa literally means barbecue, but in Mexican culture refers to meats cooked over an open fire or slowly over a long period of time. In this case it was an entire cow’s head cooked down slowly until ridiculously tender and succulent. The result is an extremely delicious meat, but probably one of the most unhealthy things you could ever eat, due to the high fat content. Of course, after my friend told me it was essentially the face of a cow I couldn’t stop saying, “mhmm, I loves me some cow face”.
We waited in the sweltering heat for about half an hour before we were seated, and even then only because I accidentally stole a table from someone who had the same name as my friend; I was committing faux-pas left, right and centre, definitely not something to do in San Antonio. My friend muttered to me as we sat down, the other family glaring at us, “you’re lucky they didn’t cut you…”
We both ordered the Reggie’s Special: two scrambled eggs topped with salsa and served with barbacoa, papas con chile (spicy potatoes), beans and two quesadillas filled with gooey melted cheese, all served with a choice of house roasted corn or regular tortillas on the side.
The family behind us were digging into their plates with gusto, all dressed to the nines having just come from church. There was a shriek from another table as a father accidentally tipped a drink down the dress of his daughter who was celebrating her birthday. The air buzzed with Spanish, plates flying from the kitchen and landing on tables faster than I could count. I was ignored by the older folk but stared at by the children and teenagers, the strange foreign girl with the funny accent, brandishing a large camera. A basket of fried tortilla chips somehow ended up in front of us, along with two giant tumblers, one with lemonade and the other horchata, a Mexican sweet barley drink.
Our plates arrived on our table with a thunk. The server rattled something off in Spanish that I couldn’t quite catch then left us to our meals, and then I was eating my cow face, taking my friend’s lead and sandwiching a little in between my house roasted corn tortilla. It was unlike anything I’ve tasted before, all at once salty, gooey and rich; it was the ultimate savoury dish. I hoovered it down in record time.
The service was fast and efficient, the food good and, even better, incredibly cheap. It was a fantastic experience, one of real Mexican food. We sat back from our empty plates feeling stuffed to the gills. My friend and I had done it again, eaten so much we could barely walk. We heaved ourselves up out of the chairs and headed out to the San Antonio River Walk to work off some of the meal. “Mhmm,” I thought, waddling up the river, “I loves me some cow face”.
Taco Haven, 1032 S Presa St., San Antonio, TX 78210, USA. Website.