New eatery bridges the distance in time, space between Newaygo and central Mexico
An offering from: The Clandestine Culinarian
On M-37, during a late November lunch hour, La Paloma was a beacon in the cold. Barely two weeks open, the restaurant attracted a steady stream of diners that picked up as noon approached. In the spare yet spacious dining room, Spanish mingled with English. The menu, still in its infancy, didn’t stray far from the standbys. Tacos. Burritos. Tortas.
La Paloma and its food, however, owes its soul and its inspiration to San Luis Potosí, 2,026 miles south of its current home in Newaygo, in the modest space that used to be River City Pizza.
That’s where the sign just inside La Paloma’s front door, under the counter, comes from. The weathered marquee once graced a taco stand there, an enterprise of the family two generations earlier, announcing its barbacoa and gorditas. Today, the matriarch behind the stove prepares her comida as they would in central Mexico.
La Paloma’s tacos reminded my dining companion of the ones he used to get in west Grand Rapids 40 years ago when Central American migrants first put down roots along the Grandville Avenue corridor and made their tacos the only way tacos should be made: meat nestled in two fluffy soft corn tortillas, studded with chopped onions and cilantro.
At La Paloma, the tacos come three to an order, at $9. The meat options, for now, are steak, pork and chicken. Somewhere down the road, more exotic cuts but wholly appropriate to tacos from central Mexico could be added to the starting lineup. Lengua, or beef tongue, most likely. Tripe is already making a cameo at La Paloma, in its Sunday menudo, the bright restorative soup of cow stomach cooked for hours until meltingly soft, adding an unctuous silky beefiness to the caldo and swimming together in red broth with other good things, like onions and corn.
When the stars align, that tripe might someday jump from caldo to tacos.
For today, we feasted on steak tacos and steak torta.
First, the tacos.
La Paloma piles generous heapings of chopped, tender steak, perfectly seasoned and seared. The trouble with many places that claim to put steak in their tacos is the sad mistreatment of the steak itself. Too many places throw a hunk of meat into a tepid pan. The pan eventually musters the energy to come to heat. The meat slowly turns grey. Water seeps out of the beef, which is effectively boiled. Adding insult to injured beef, these places also tend to skimp on the salt and pepper. The result is bland, wet and leathery beef, disintegrating the corn or flour vessel in which it rides.
Not so at La Paloma.
The steak is briskly cooked on a scorchingly hot surface. Salt, the unifying spice, is generously added. The matriarch in the back robustly seasons the steak. Fond and microscopically crispy bits of charred beef cling to the steak, even after it is chopped and ladled into the double blanket of corn taco.
In the torta, for $7, that same sliced and chopped steak reclines on a bed of creamy beans, diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce. Sliced avocado and cheese straddle the steak. Everything goes between a bolillo (BOW-lee-yo) bun, the slightly sweet, sturdy plate-sized bun that is toasted just before serving, glistening, and the only bread any self-respecting torta should ever be made from.
And because half the fun of eating most foods is the saucing, La Paloma conveniently leaves squeeze bottles of green and red salsa out for anyone to grab, whenever they want to, however often. Tomatillos undergird the salsa verde. Chile de arbol provide the foundation for the salsa roja. The green salsa packs a gentle heat that dances among the slight tanginess of the tomatillos. For the red salsa, heat lingered under the smokiness and sugar of the chile de arbol. Do you need either salsa? Should anyone watch a movie on mute?
The wind outside may have been howling, and old snow still crusted the side of M-37. But with that torta and those tacos in hand, a glass of horchata – sweet rice milk laced with cinnamon – to wash everything down, everyone in La Paloma’s dining room should be forgiven if they felt, through the magic of food and however fleetingly, as though they were in San Luis Potosi.
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