Menudo - Toms #1. Santa Monica, CA.

menudo.jpgToms #1. Santa Monica, CA.

"Daddy drinks because you cry," I thought to myself as I looked blearily at my sleeping baby. I felt miserable and was still a little drunk. I was trying to find a scapegoat for my head-splitting hangover. Chloe just happened to be the first thing I could focus my bloodshot eyes on. My alcoholic aftereffects were so hellish even Nick Nolte himself would consider smoking a shotgun to end it all. It was another hazy, foggy, cotton-mouthed Sunday. It seemed for me every Sunday was the movie "Groundhog Day" only with a severe hangover. I could still taste the rotgut in my mouth and it was nauseating me. An Ashlee Simpson-esque acid-reflux was tearing up my throat and leaving a terrible taste of bitter bile in my mouth. Even worse, my head thumped like a cheap, ten-dollar subwoofer bought from a couple of guys out of a plain, white van. It was a punishing cadence that I wished to silence as soon as possible. The morning sunlight was objectively pleasant enough, I guess, but to me it might as well been a white-hot branding iron coming down on my eyelids. I was hurting. I was paying the price of too good a time (was there such a thing?). I found myself mumbling the familiar hangover prayer slash oath that I would never drink again if only somebody or something would please, please, please take this unbearable pain away!! Amen. There are no atheists in foxholes, and especially none the morning after an alcoholic binge. While I waited for my prayers to be answered I would chug a tall glass of pure, mountain spring water. That didn't seem to do much. The dull pounding in my skull now got louder and louder like Poe's Tell-Tale Heart.

I needed food. I needed a dish with powerful and magical healing properties. A dish specifically concocted for the ailment of overindulgence. A dish that shares the same name as a certain Puerto Rican boy band with whom Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin formerly busted tunes. It's quite appropriate considering that if you're choosing to live la vida loca, it's advised you chow down on this Sonora, Mexican masterpiece in order to save your vida period. Then suddenly before me St. Menudo, the patron saint of the pathetically hungover, appears. He kindly offers my sad, dehydrated soul salvation in the form of tripe soup.

Menudo is yet another sacred ethnic dish that has its roots firmly planted in peasant food heritage. Menudo is also a byproduct of conflict. Long ago in northern Mexico, the select cuts of a town's cattle would go to battle-weary and hungry Mexican soldiers while the leftovers went to the peasant folk. These leftovers consisted largely of Fear Factor staples like innards, tails, hooves, et al. Inventive and/or desperate peasant cooks created a soup that made good use of a couple of these ingredients - the stomach (tripe) and calf's foot (hoof). Classic menudo is basically a slowly cooked stew of honeycomb tripe and calf's foot later infused with several varieties of chiles and spices and balanced in flavor and texture with white hominy. It's presented as a soup and served with corn tortillas.

I was exposed to Chinese tripe dishes long before I had my first nibble of menudo, and I had my first menudo well before my first hangover. So tripe, the key player in menudo, is no stranger to my dining repertoire. However, I can appreciate why the uninitiated would suffer tripe trepidation when sampling menudo for the first time. Tripe, particularly honeycomb tripe, is a rather bizarre experience. Visually this form of tripe, well, like the name says, resembles honeycomb. However, the tactility of it is what unsettles most people. The texture is like little rubber waves sweeping over your tongue and brushing down your throat as you swallow it. This meat is so alien you might as well be eating Klingon. But for the same reason that makes this organ meat so strange is what also makes it so great for menudo. The honeycomb pockets of the tripe acts as an efficient delivery system for the spicy, tangy soup. The organ's odd design traps the tasty liquid that simultaneously gives you soup and flavors the tripe. Tripe can be really skunky if not cooked properly. When it is cooked right, tripe becomes sort of bland with just a kiss of skunkiness. This unique flavor combined with the spicy chile soup, the wholesome hominy, a dash of oregano and some squirts of fresh lime juice make menudo a crazy witch's brew of taste sensation and rejuvenation.

The same idea is behind another hangover cure - the Bloody Mary. Menudo and the famous Bloody Mary are similar in the kick in the ass they give to the afflicted. Both remedies are spicy and sort of nutritional. But whereas the Bloody Mary uses the "hair of the dog" method to chase away the pain (i.e., using booze to cure overboozin'), menudo appears to be using belly to heal a bellyache. Maybe a dollop of brain or two would perfect the recipe and get rid of this hellacious headache. Whatever the trick is, menudo seems to make me feel almost whole again.

The weekend belongs to menudo. Most Mexican restaurants, taquerias and taco trucks serve menudo only on the weekends. Why? Menudo takes a long, long time to make which is one reason. Clearly the other reason is that most of the alcoholic fueled debauchery happens on Friday and Saturday nights. It's basic market timing principles at work really.

I've eaten menudo at various and sundry places all over Los Angeles and for some reason very few of them include hominy in the recipe. Hominy is a hulled corn from which the bran and germ have been removed then the kernel is boiled until tender. I'm not sure why hominy is deleted. Besides being a purist, I really enjoy the added texture and mellowness that it brings to the dish. The restaurant I frequent for menudo excludes hominy as well. But because of how superior their menudo's flavor is and how generous the portions and ingredients are, it's easy to forgive the lack of hominy - so long as everything else is on key.

My favorite restaurant menudo in LA isn't found at a typical Mexican eatery. In fact, technically, it isn't a Mexican restaurant at all. It's Toms #1 (no apostrophe - maybe it's named after lots of Toms) on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. Toms #1 is a lot like those other generic diners in cities across America. These joints have really simple yet hard to recall names like Bob's #3, Jons #2 or Jim's Burgers #4. Toms #1 began as a burger stand then started doing pretty good Mexican fare when the neighborhood's palate reflected more south of the border rather than just south of the Palisades. Every single time I go to Toms #1 there is some kind of significant blood alcohol level coursing through my veins. And every single time I'm there, I stare dumbstruck at the massive menu that hangs over the grill just behind the front counter where the bored looking Mexican lady waits for my order. I mumble on and on about what I should get, sounding very much like Toms' semi-regular, schizophrenic, homeless customers. And, predictably, every single time I end up ordering their best dish, the menudo. As previously noted, Toms' menudo doesn't have any hominy. It does however have a hefty helping of honeycomb tripe and nice big chunks of tendon removed from the hooves. I heart tendon. And for me tendon plus tripe is like peanut butter and chocolate to Reese's Peanut Butter Cup enthusiasts - two great tastes that go great together!

Menudo is also an interactive dish because there is some prepping to do before mowing down - kinda like Vietnamese pho noodles. Escorting the steaming bowl of tripe soup is a little, cardboard container filled with menudo dressings like fresh fragrant cilantro and diced, crisp, sweet, white onions, also included are a couple of slices of juicy zesty lime. Shake on some lively oregano and then drizzle on a bit of hot sauce, and finally you can kiss your hangover adios!

However my all time favorite menudo isn't found in a restaurant, taco stand or even a taco truck. Like most of the world's best cooking it's found only in someone's home kitchen. My good friend Gina's father made the best menudo I've ever eaten. He would mercifully serve it up every New Year's morning. Although I didn't drink like Mickey Rourke back then, her dad's menudo was still able to revive me like a hearty bowl of chicken soup would. Best of all, Gina's dad never forgot the hominy.

Now that my hangover's gone, I swear never to touch another drink, so help me. Then again, menudo just wouldn't be the same without a hangover to get rid of. Some things just go hand in hand, I suppose. Okay, so maybe daddy doesn't drink because the baby cries. Maybe he drinks because he's a good for nothing drunk. Or maybe he drinks just so he has a reason to eat menudo. Oh, who cares why. Bartender, set 'em up!


stefkaSD02 said…
I really enjoy reading your articles on food. Sorry my comment isn't more interesting or emphatic.
Eddie Lin said…
Stefkasd02, just making the effort to write a nice comment is more than enough. I really appreciate it and am glad you enjoy what I write.
Anonymous said…
I consumed your writing on menudo as I myself have a pot simmering on the stove waiting the hours until the ball drops at The Square and then the menudo will be consumed by my family and friends. Yes, I use hominy! I learned watching mom as she cured and now I am a curandera of the hangover.
Anonymous said…
Just want to wish you a...
Happy New Year!!!! oops, was I too loud.
Hope you had your menudo. la curandera
Eddie Lin said…
Dear curandera,

How I wish I was at your home right now eating your delicious menudo with your family and friends. It sounds perfect! Right now I am hungover and a little sick also. Thanks for your New Year's wishes. I already feel better.

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2006!
I found this article linked from Wikipedia. I'm from Scotland, but I'll be in the US this May, driving from Texas to California. I'll try some Menudo when/if I find some. You've inspired me :)
Eddie Lin said…

eat up, my scottish friend!! there's a lot of good and wild eating to be had in the great southwest. try some rattlesnake and bull balls while you're out there.

bring me some haggis and i'll trade you a bowl of delicioso menudo, amigo!
I tried rattlesnake once in Florida. Interesting, but not my favourte.

Good to see you appreciate the great taste of a well-made haggis :)
Anonymous said…
how about mondongo?
Anonymous said…
Actually, tripe soup is eaten all around the world. In Bulgaria, we use little tripe chunks that still have a bit of meat on them (easier for the uninitiated to eat), flour instead of hominy, garlic instead of onion. Still, tripe soup is more or less the same the world over. My favorite part has to be when you mix all the ingredients together! yum
Eddie Lin said…

i would love to try sopa de mondongo. i need to track it down in LA. thanks!


wow! bulgarian tripe soup. now that sounds special. i wish to have that someday as well - hopefully in bulgaria!


this is why i love the internet and blogging so much. thanks for your generous offer. i will absolutely look you up if i'm ever out your way. there is nothing like homemade menudo. and i'm certain it's even better when it's made especially for you.

cheers, my friend.
Anonymous said…
Utterly Amazing! I was bored at work, started thinking about menudo, typed "menudo" into Google "I'm Feeling Lucky" and hit your piece. Though I didn't remember the name, Tom's #1 is the very first place I ever had menudo!!! - I looked it up on Google Maps. I used to live a few blocks away on Virginia Avenue. I have had hundreds of bowls of menudo since (many, sadly in Minnesota, not known for its Mexican cuisine) and none have ever been as good.
Eddie Lin said…

you were feeling lucky and you got lucky! welcome to deep end dining. your worst food nightmares come true. but, seriously, i'm glad you are a fan of menudo, and i am quite amazed at your story and that you actually had the same menudo i had at toms #1.

thanks for sharing!
Anonymous said…
My Aunt who is from Mexico City told me that in Southern and Central Mexico, Menudo is traditionally prepared without hominy. In fact they call it a different name "Panzita," literally "little belly." The hominy is a Northern Mexican addition.
Anonymous said…
When I was younger, I used to be very picky about what I ate. Then one day, I was forcefully introduced to alligator tail. To this day, I still remember how rich and flavorful that was. Because of that, I promised myself that I would never dismiss a food based on its contents. While I still haven't quite mustered up the courage to try menudo yet, I will one day soon, as I've heard raves about the little taqueria down the street from me here in Vegas. Here's to eating the stuff that nobody else will wants! Btw, rattlesnake is quite delicious and I recommend it to anybody.
Eddie Lin said…

thanks for the cultural insight.


where can i get rattlesnake in vegas??? i need to try it.
Anonymous said…
Unfortunately I haven't found rattlesnake in Vegas yet (though I have been looking.) I found it back home in Texas at a local fair.
Anonymous said…
Ha, I found this blog through wikipedia. I've been eating menudo since I was little! I honestly never thought about what kind of meat was used until my sister asked what part of the cow it is. I just remember eating it like there was no tomorrow each time it was made. It was good insight to hear from a "first time" perspective.
Anonymous said…
MMM...Menudo is yummy:) I get some almost every saturday in Napa, Ca. My dad's friend owns a restaurant there and they have the best menudo with hominy...i always add onion, oregano, a teeny bit of lime and some fresh diced jalapenos (better than hot ause to me)..eaten with a handmade corn tortilla and a mexican coke with lime its frickin perfection:) even better than my auntie's hommade version...