Easton's best Mexican food also serves up some authentic kids meals. A favorite is the tacos - which come with two corn tortillas filled with a choice of lightly seasoned beef or chicken, shredded cheese, and beans and rice on the side. The kids' menu also features traditional American fare, like hot dogs or chicken fingers, if your little ones have room after all the chips and salsa. 4 S. Aurora Street.
The locals told me to hit a tiny restaurant in the center of town, though restaurant was a generous word; it was more like a spit of pork and a counter with four stools. This was home to Guadalajara’s best tacos al pastor, an obsession of mine since living in Mexico. The secret to tacos al pastor is the sauce—which is not an easy recipe to come by—and the pineapples. The meat is marinated in a special combination of chiles, spices and vinegar, slow cooked on the spit, and served in homemade tortillas with grilled pineapple to balance out the spice.
Here in Easton, I’ve searched far and wide for that taste of Mexico. More than a burrito slathered in canned red sauce, the unexpected juxtaposition of flavors (the spicier, the better) is a signature component in Mexican cuisine. The chocolate and chile found in a molé sauce or the creamy, benign cheese and spicy chorizo found in a queso fundido both provide an adventure for your mouth.
But could a local restaurant replicate these authentic flavors? Could typical Mexican tacos al pastor make it all the way to Maryland’s Eastern Shore? Do cilantro and lime and Guajillo chiles mix in the Chesapeake tidal basin? What are the local offerings and do they stand up to the real thing?
The answer is found in a little bit of Mexican geography. Tijuana, Mexicali and Cuidad Juarez are lively border towns that play up the louder parts of Mexican culture with large-rimmed margarita glasses and oversized sombreros. Plaza Tapatía, though a fun place to take the family, is Easton’s border town. Tapatía has the usual Mexican restaurant fare—fajitas, burritos, tacos—that most Americans are comfortable with, but it doesn't hit the high notes of authentic Mexican cuisine. As for the tacos al pastor, the flavors of the pork are surprisingly good, but I don’t see any pineapple and the tortillas are not homemade. It is a solid take on the dish, but it leaves room for improvement. Tapatía’s appeal—like a border town's—is its festive atmosphere that makes you feel like you went someplace (even though you just drove across town).
The new Chipotle on Route 50 is our Monterrey: modern, on the cutting edge, and somewhere you stop over on your way to another destination. Monterrey is the business center of Mexico, with an industrial flair and very un-Mexican efficiency. Chipotle is an apt analogy. It doesn’t offer tacos al pastor on the menu. In fact, its menu is surprisingly terse: I count four main offerings with lots of choices on fillings. But this resonates, because my Guadalajara pork spit only had one item on the menu. There are some other parts of the fare that taste like real Mexico to me: the pico de gallo, the crema you can have dripped over your meat, the barbacoa, the lime and cilantro rice, the thin tortilla shells used in the tacos. The food is fast, but it is fresh and inspired.
Next stop: Acapulco. Acapulco represents its namesake: the resort town that has some hit-or-miss venues in the town center, but mostly caters to American tourists. Although the service is attentive and helpful, Acapulco’s tacos al pastor are a disappointment. Instead of the slow-cooked, delicately seasoned pork, I am served three tortillas (store bought, not homemade) with large chunks of pork dripping in a red sauce that bore no resemblance to the intricate flavors of traditional pastor. There are no pineapples to be found and in their place, a smear of guacamole. I leave without finishing a one. Like Tapatía, Acapulco serves a somewhat Americanized version of Mexican but without the ambiance.
My last visit on this scavenger hunt is the relatively new El Dorado, though the owners will tell you that they serve more than Mexican food. With a smattering of South American specialties and many Mexican dishes to choose from, El Dorado serves up true Latin American hospitality. Before I order the tacos al pastor, I have to try the guacamole prepared table-side. With a granite mortor and pestle, our server slowly mashes avocado halves, squeezes fresh limes, adds cilantro, onion and a few spices. It is almost good enough to skip the tacos al pastor. But I forge ahead. They arrive shortly after—three delicate tortillas, handmade each day I’m told, with the earthy, flavor of ground maize, filled with seasoned pork, grilled pineapple and limes on the side. One bite and I am transported to a stool and a spit of pork on a bustling street. El Dorado is Easton’s Guadalajara—the quintessential Mexican city. Downtown Guadalajara is picturesque, with equal parts modern buildings and colonial Spanish architecture, where mariachi music was born. The universities bustle; the parades are epic; and you don’t find hoards of American tourists. El Dorado would fit in nicely, with its lack of hoopla and commitment to quality. Luckily, it is right here on Dover Street.
Editor's note: El Dorado reopens in 2012 on January 4th.