La Paisanita: Gas-Station Art With Gusto

At an independent fashion-and-crafts art show/flea market in the Essex Street Market in Lower Manhattan, my wife chastised me for taking photos of some of the finer products available for sale -- noveau velvet paintings of the latest Brooklyn It band, shirts with images of unicorns sectioned into cuts of meat, scarves so long and thin their only practical purpose would be for use in mummification. "It's not appropriate to take pictures. You might be suspected as a retail competitor's spy ganking ideas," said the missus, who at the time was a visual designer for a major New York department store. Meh. "Who'd want to make a profit stealing these designs?" I replied, chortling and briefly making eye contact with the sexually androgynous crotchet "artist" as we passed his/her booth. Was that lip liner or a dirt 'stache weaker than the one I had at 13 years of age? "These next big things are crap. Andres Serrano's Piss Jesus. Now that's art!"

So is the chicken taco at La Paisanita within a Chevron gas station. Like Piss Jesus, it's simple, grounded in the commonplace. Urine happens when you drink. The crucifix over my son's crib is just what we Catholic Latinos do. Again: Meh. Meh. Meh. Jalapeños can be balls-burning hot. Combined, bodily fluid and a religious icon release a shit storm, eliciting gasps, double takes and denunciations. Combined, chicken and a jalapeño marinade are magical, worthy of the same reactions. Dios freakin' mio. How dare this unassuming taquería alter my view of the chicken taco? The meat was so manna-like, I quickly gobbled up what had fallen out of corn tortillas. It lacked for nothing. The cilantro, onions -- both minced raw and sliced sautéed -- lime and salsa were baroque. The added complexity was gratuitous.

The clerk behind the gas station's counter was as protective and full of himself as those kids at the show in New York City. After ordering everything on the taco menu (pastor, barbacoa, lengua, fajita, chicken), I began writing down in my notebook the store's inventory of wine on the shelf across from the counter. There were four-packs of Sutter Home wine in plastic bottles. There was a variety of Arbor Mist and Boone's Farm flavors. In the middle of the store were two video-game machines: Texas Redemption and Cherry 95. The clerk was suspicious of my note taking, asking in a curt grunt if I needed help.

The woman preparing my tacos was swift and efficient. I waited six minutes from the time I ordered to the time my tacos were packed in a Styrofoam take-out box. (She never asked me if I cared to dine in.) After I received the meal, I asked the woman if I could take photos of the menu above the counter and the kitchen. She answered in the affirmative. The clerk again wasn't happy, asking me why I was taking photos. Quickly, I answered that the woman said I could. The clerk scowled, shook his head and returned to his station.

The tender fajita was overpowered by salsa verde poured over it. The juicy barbacoa was a letdown; it contained a chunk of tough, rubbery fat. The lengua was just that -- lengua; it fell short of the fail-safe option it is usually. The pastor was among the better I've had since moving to Texas 16 months ago. Unfortunately, the packaged corn tortillas wrapped around the fillings were oily after being grilled on the flattop griddle. They registered zilch on my palate. Disappointing, yes, but as such they did not get in the way of any of the meats.

Still, the chicken was the best of the lot. Its pleasant, spicy chile flavor lingered long into my afternoon. I considered returning to the gas station, risking the clerk's ire. Alas, I'll have to wait a week or two until I return to the gas station and the taquería within it. Which I will do.

La Paisanita 8209 Park Lane

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José Ralat Maldonado

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