May 21, 2009
Brains Are Back. Tacos de Sesos aka Beef Brain Tacos. Crazy Delicious! Carnitas Michoacanas. Reseda, CA. (The Original, Unjacked Version).
Gray Matter Platter.
Welcome Grub Street readers. Read the story before Hadley Tomicki got his "Grubby" hands on it.
There was a time when this great country went brainless. Not so long ago, brains could not be found anywhere. Places that had brains suddenly found them missing. From the most revered institutions to the humblest hamlets, brains were banned and deemed unfit. Those were bleak days. They were dark times.
No, I’m not talking about the former Presidential Administration. I’m talking about brain tacos aka tacos de sesos and the woeful day they disappeared from taqueria menus across the country, particularly in Los Angeles.
Hope springs eternal, however, and a new era is here. Brains are back. Beef brains are slowly creeping their way back on to menus around town. It’s been too long.
A brain is a terrible thing to waste and yet millions of them were squandered for years. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease made sure of that. Coincidentally, BSE was most active in Canada and in the U.S. during the Bush Administration when brains were banned. (I’m just saying.)
BSE is a serious disease that causes the brain of a cow to deteriorate by creating holes in it leading to degeneration in mental as well as physical functions and finally death. Humans may be infected by BSE if they ingest the brain or spinal cord of an infected cow. The human form of the disease is called Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD).
Ever since I was a child, I ate beef brains with the zeal of a lumbering zombie. My family owned and ran an Alta Dena Drive-Thru Dairy in Huntington Park, California, and many taquerias in the area sold the little bundles of beef brain cradled in toasty corn tortillas called tacos de sesos. But, all you needed to say was “sesos”. As a little Chinese-American kid in a predominantly Latino/Hispanic/Mexican-American neighborhood, ordering sesos at a taco stand invariably got me looks from the locals that screamed “loco chinito!” but in a good way. The taco stand regulars and staff admired my culinary curiosity and gustatory gusto. I just loved eating brains.
For years, decades even, this cerebral selection was scrawled by grease pen onto menu boards and sat there like a sideshow freak, subjected to taunts by patrons, terrified mothers covered their children’s eyes, drunken teenagers laughed and dared each other to eat one. Sesos was an abused novelty act. But, to me sesos was beautiful and I wanted to protect it like the Elephant Man.
But, there was something much worse than rowdy teenage punks just waiting around the corner — something more menacing and evil. No, not the Bush Administration. It was BSE aka mad cow disease. Sesos would no longer have to suffer the humiliation of those who didn’t understand it because it was no longer available for human consumption as decreed by both the USDA and FDA.
Mad cow is no joke. In fact, the human form of the disease can have an incubation period of 50 years or longer. Typically, though, if infected, you’ll see your demise within 5 years. That’s a long time to pass to regret a meal.
Although, it needs to be stated that the cases of humans contracting BSE from infected meat is very low.
Oh, and brain is also very high in cholesterol, so on top of dying from a disintegrating brain, it’s not heart-healthy either. No wonder it’s the food of choice for the undead — they don’t have to worry about this health stuff.
But as the years went by, BSE would be contained and the USDA eventually banned the harmful cattle feed containing ground up parts from diseased cows that is believed to be the cause of BSE.
With BSE seemingly under control, sesos was rumored to be making a comeback. However, in reality, seso sightings would rival that of the chupacabra in false alarms. Driving by a taco stand, I’d spy the word “sesos” lettered below “lengua” on the storefront window and believed I had struck taco gold. Instead, I’d learn from the cashier that sesos hasn’t been offered for years and the owner just never bothered to remove the item from the signage. At other taquerias, I was teased by the menu board, as the selection “sesos” was barely scratched out with ink. Squinting my eyes I could almost make the pen line disappear and pretend sesos was back.
Then at long last, on a simmering day in the Valley much like today, I was unexpectedly reunited with sesos. In a tired strip mall at the intersection of Reseda and Victory Boulevards was the restaurant Carnitas Michoacanas. I walked in to grab a quick and cheap combo taco platter with my usual meat choices of lengua (tongue), cabeza (head) and tripas (tripe and sometimes intestines). As it turned out, to my glee, this place was sesos central. Fresh brains were cooked here all day long and folded into a taco or stuffed inside a burrito. Welcome back, amigo. I’ve missed you. Remember me? It’s Loco Chinito.
The reunion bite of my sesos taco resulted in a reconnection of synapses channeling memories of yesterfood. I found myself in a culinary time machine and all those sesos tacos of my childhood became as real as the one I was eating at the moment. The dense tofu texture combined with an almost custard-like creaminess was equally as unique as its super subtle umami savoriness. There’s just nothing like it.
Beef brain’s flavor subtleties become bolder when delivered within a taco and topped with salsa verde, crisp onion, fragrant cilantro and squeezes of fresh lime.
Aside from the mad cow disease, beef brain is crazy good, but you have to be a little insane to eat it. Let's see how I feel in 5 years.
18507 Victory Blvd.
Reseda, CA 91335