In the tight space, we’re all huddled together, our mutual energies overlapping, our experiences from the day colliding whether we talk to each other or not, the whole place a slow steady stew on par with the long boiled tongue that leaves the tacos de lengua dripping with flavor or the calm wait that allows the marinade for the al pastor to shine.
“You don’t get this at a rest stop on the interstate,” Casey Call says.
“Jesus, the flavors. Oh my God, that’s not even real,” Tröh exclaims.
But it’s simply a lot of patience, and a lot of prep, that makes for this level of incredulity.
“It’s constantly going the whole day,” general manager Lupe Garcia says of the activity at her mother’s tiny niche of a restaurant. She runs things late night, while her mother takes care of things during normal hours. She took over from her uncle, Jesús Garcia, who recently opened his own shop, Don Chucho’s, next door.
Two two-tops are crammed into the space to the left of the door, while four more hug the wall opposite the counter that abuts the tightest of kitchens. “There’s always lots of prep,” she says, with the place sometimes closed for only a handful of hours depending on the day of the week.
The obvious investment of time and care leaves many frequently abstaining from Prima’s superlative salsa verde and smoky, ancho heavy salsa roja—there’s simply no need given the juicy, rich flavors dripping from each corn flour dais.
Take that al pastor marinade, for instance.
“It depends on the blending,” Garcia says of the labor-intensive process.
First, dry chiles sit overnight in water before being blended with orange juice and then, pineapple, with salt being added in stages along the way. It’s a balancing act between salt, acid, and sour with each element carefully watched. To get to that perfect carne asada that makes al pastor what it is, not-too thinly sliced pork is left to sit for at least an hour in the marinade before being cooked to order on the grill top.
“Yeah, that’s the point. By itself, it tastes good. You really don’t need the salsa. It’s the natural flavor,” Garcia says.
To further illustrate that point, there’s the tacos de lengua. Whole tongues get boiled for an hour with only onions and garlic. From there, they’re peeled and cut into cubes and left to a long, slow simmer with additional seasoning and herbs: bay leaves, thyme, banana leaves, and black pepper and salt. Once applied to a double tortilla bed, the distinct, rich flavor that’s exuded precludes the necessity of anything beyond cilantro and onion.
As if that isn’t enough, Garcia let’s me in on a trade secret applied to the tortillas that get warmed upon the flat top: besides being daubed with a light coating of oil, there’s the addition of a bit of manteca, or rendered pork fat, which they get from 9th street neighbors La Carniceria de Puebla. In addition to selling imported manteca from Don Carlos, a company based in New Jersey, they supply Prima with the rendered fat from their house made chicharones. This light daubing, while not enough to make them soggy, prevents the shells from getting brittle and flaky, while adding even more flavor.
In between gauging reactions from the various tacos—including a sublime surtida blend that incudes fatty skin and rich pork cheek—and Joe Call’s torta al pastor (a monster of a sandwich featuring jalapeno, mayo, refried beans, onion, avocado, and Oaxaca cheese), I call Gamble over to try the simple enjambment of tortilla, cheese, and salsa verde with diced onion and shredded cheese that is Prima’s quesadilla. While Garcia admits that a truly authentic quesadilla should be made from scratch with masa (as is the case with nearby Plaza Garibaldi on Washington Ave.), there’s enough flavor in the corn flour tortilla shells they use to create the requisite synergy with the rich, meaty Oaxaca cheese.
“That’s some authentic tortilla shit,” Gamble beams.
I was happy to share. It was the least I could do.
special thanks: @bigexclusive