There are very few television shows I consistently watch on a regular basis. For quite a while during high school I had a few I’d watch each week, but as I got more involved in other things later in college – and as college football watching came to dominate almost every single night of my life – the list gradually withered down to Lost and The Office. Eventually Lost ended and I lost track of what was going on with The Office (I never did get the whole Mountain TV time zone thing down pat), and my television watching withered down to whatever happened to be on ESPN or Food Network.
If you’ve ever watched Food Network you know Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is on practically every day, and often time in marathon form. I know there are a million reasons why people claim to hate Guy Fieri (really, how can you hate a dude you don’t even know?) but I like the concept of the show, and like seeing the restaurants featured. That said, I’ve checked out two of these supposed All-American hidden gems, and I found neither Chaps Pit Beef (in Baltimore) nor The Burger Bar (In Ogden, Utah) to be earth-shattering. Good food, yea. Worth going out of my way for with the way gas runs these days? No way.
A couple weeks ago a place about thirty minutes from where I’m living now was featured on the show. It wasn’t my first time hearing about R&R Taqueria, which has built quite a reputation in central Maryland over the last few years thanks to a popular local food blog, HowChow. And while Taco’s really aren’t my thing and previous adventures have taught me that Mr. HowChow and I share very different tastes, I made sure to tune in when Guy pulled into R&R for a visit.
This is a place which clearly qualifies for the show. I don’t want to speak ill of the area, but it has seen better days. Elkridge has a tough, blue collar reputation in the realm of Maryland stereotypes, and given how my elementary school carpool used to hold our collective breaths while passing a nearby cemetery (not because of the smell of dead people, but because of the industrial volume of the area), it didn’t surprise me the area hasn’t appreciated in the span of 15 years. But working-class neighborhood alone doesn’t earmark a place as a dive. Being a six-stool room smaller than my mom’s closet does. Oh yea, as does being located inside of a gas station.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I’m far from a Latino food expert. That I passed all my Spanish classes in college is due more to the fact that I took the same broadcast courses the football players always decided to take (hint, hint) and not to my overwhelming interest in broadening my cultural horizons. Still, any place offering a menu that includes cuts like tongue, tripe, and head cheese intrigues me enough to try. When I first went in I asked for the tripe, but the girl at the counter (who spoke pretty solid English) said they were out. Bummed, I nevertheless remembered the behemoth of a preparation the crew went through to prepare the Tacos de Barbacoa, and decided any place willing to hack up a whole lamb in the back of a gas station deserved my hard earned $2.19.
I can only remember having Lamb one other time in my life. It was at Clyde’s in Columbia, and I thought the puny little chops sucked. I can’t remember why they sucked though, other than the $18 I shelled out for the dish seemed a lot for something with so little meat. So as I sat waiting for my taco, it dawned on me that I really couldn’t remember what lamb tasted like. Funny, right? There are certain and extremely weird animal tastes I could pick out in outer space (chicken liver, bison testicles) but I had no idea what lamb tasted like.
According to the show the yellow corn tortillas are made-in house. To tell you the truth I couldn’t have distinguished mine from any store-bought tortilla, except that it was thicker and clearly had a slight, gamey taste of lard that toasted the underside. The meat itself was shredded, with a few disappointing hunks of gelatinous fat included. I like melted intramuscular fat as much as the next guy, but after tasting the still semisolid hunks of fat I decided to remove them. The meat itself was what I can only describe as gamey. Distinguishable from beef in that it lacked the sweet undertones, it was grassy with strong hints of garlic and vinegar. I definitely appreciated the taste, and the cilantro and onions made a nice tagalong, but overall I wasn’t blown away. Maybe it’s the gringo in me, but there was too much bitterness and acidity for my taste, and not enough sweetness or salt.
Kind of bummed about my taco, I went back to order a few others for my mom, who was scheduled to get off a plane in an hour or two (the only reason I had to be in the area to start with.) It was during that time that I got to talking to a stream of people coming in, many of whom were taking pictures next to a set-up that featured an autograph from Guy. I spoke to a local teacher who asked me about my Rita’s shirt, and after a while, she started to try to explain what Rita’s is to the women making tacos behind the counter. A complete novice in Spanish, I suddenly found myself reaching back into my hat of linguistic tricks and busting out phrases like “helado sin o con leche,” and “manana, el helado es gratis” (it was free ice day the next day.) That’s when the guy who was on the show came out, and I told him about the Rita’s free ice day. He said he had been to Rita’s before, and I went on to tell him that I had seen the show and wanted to stop by. He seemed more than appreciative and took the time to ring my second order up before shaking my hand.
I took a few more minutes to talk to some of the other customers before leaving with my mom’s tacos (a carne asada and two carnitas — she said they were good but ‘salty.’) It’s at that point that I realized the whole point of going to a Triple D featured place is not a lost cause, even when the food might not shatter your expectations. It really shouldn’t have come as such a revelation to me. I mean, I’ve long known that our perception of food is as much about taste and sensation as it is about experience, and in the adventure and community of going out of your way to find a place “as seen on TV,” you’re taping into that X-factor of what makes spending money out on food worth it.
Would I recommend R&R? Yea, I would. The lamb taco wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, but then again, it’s not something I normally eat. I think for anyone who enjoys Mexican food it will more than hit the spot, and even if you don’t, the adventure of trying it out and meeting those who’ve done the same is worth it.