Tortilla Flattery

In spring, when the heat of the Southern California sun mingled the odors of sweaty cabbage with sweet strawberries, my husband and I would park in a local field and watch the El Toro Air Force Base's annual air show. The most fascinating aspect of the show was not the deafening expertise of the daredevil pilots, but rather the diverse rowd that gawked from the ground.

The town of El Toro traditionally depends on two things for commerce: the air force base and the crops A cabbage, lettuce, oranges, strawberries, and tomatoes. (El Toro boasts one of the last viable orange groves in Orange County.) In later years, a third economic base has established itself A corporate headquarters. The largest businesses in the nation now call El Toro and its neighbors Irvine, Laguna Hills, and Newport A home.

Thus, the city's population is a mixture of stable citizens and migratory ones, a diversity reflected yearly at the air show. Traveling businessmen in rented Cadillacs loiter with crew-cutted air force personnel. Middle-class families of five picnic alongside keg parties sponsored by University of California students. And truckloads of migrant farmworkers pause for an hour or two on their way back to the "need work" station.

During a recent excursion to South Dade, I was surprised to find Homestead, aside from the lack of corporate headquarters, astonishingly similar to El Toro. Like El Toro, Homestead developed around agriculture and an air force base. Its prehurricane population included the military, local businessmen, farm owners, and of course, migrant farmworkers.

As in California, the migrant camps attract workers from Mexico, and Homestead's large Mexican community provides an interesting cultural counterpoint to the influences of Cuba and South America. What's unusual about Homestead is that some of these migrant farm workers became the city's most stabilizing force, opening small businesses and restaurants, lending the city a flavor it otherwise might have lacked. Interesting, too, that after the horror and destruction of Hurricane Andrew, these businesses were the first to reopen their doors, even as those of the air force base, the national chain stores, and the malls were permanently closed.

The camps were what originally prompted the Hernandez family to move first to South Miami and eventually to Homestead from the Texas Valley (and before that, Mexico). The family, which had known nothing but the pickers' circuit, gradually realized that the eight of them could not survive for long on the low wages of itinerant farmworkers, even if they all labored in the fields. In mid-1970 the Hernandezes opened their first business, a tortilla factory in the center of the historic downtown district. According to Emma, the youngest child and the only one born in Florida, it was a losing venture. To compensate, the Hernandezes operated a take-out service on the same Krome Avenue site. Their initial experiment in food preparation was profitable, and by 1982 the family business A El Toro Taco A had moved to a choice corner lot.

Today the emphasis at El Toro Taco is still on family A both those who serve and those who are served. Emma, her brother Hector, and their mother Estefana enjoy the daily responsibilities of running the restaurant, a homey and authentic Mexican establishment whose tables are constantly being rearranged to accommodate the size of your group (i.e. extended family).

During the hurricane, El Toro Taco fared a bit worse than its neighbors, thanks to its prime corner location. The storefront windows were blown out; the roof was blown off. A separate room, formerly used for private parties, is now only serviceable for storage. The electricity still needs rewiring. And the restaurant only carried liability insurance, so repairs have been slow and unfinanced. Debt for El Toro Taco, as it is for so many other restaurants (even those who haven't been hit by a hurricane), is now a likelihood.

But the Hernandez family can rely on two things: their will to survive, and each other. Family members from other cities helped rebuild the restaurant, concentrating on the main dining room, obviously the most important room. After all, what would be the point of having the best barbacoa (shredded beef) tamales in the southeast if you didn't have anywhere to serve them?

As of early February, El Toro Taco is back in the game A much to the dismay of the two other Mexican restaurants in the immediate vicinity, I'm sure. Though the avocados for guacamole aren't always available, and the machine with which Emma Hernandez presses her own tortillas can't be plugged in, the restaurant makes substitutions without cutting quality. My chicken burrito was practically tubular with shredded white meat. Topped with a delicate, tangy-but-mild ranchero sauce, it was wrapped in a flour tortilla so fresh it stretched seamlessly before tearing apart.

Tacos spilled a similar generous portion. Without a taco dressing, though, and prepared with just-crisp flour tortilla shells rather than ones made of corn, they were somewhat bland. A complimentary salsa, delivered with bright and snappy homemade tortilla chips, can be employed as a substitute for the missing sauce. That salsa, however, was not even suggestively spicy, and if it was made with local Homestead tomatoes, they were fresh but slightly mealy.

We ordered the tacos a la carte as an appetizer; tamales, tostadas, enchiladas, and burritos can be ordered this way, as well. Standard fillings include barbacoa, ground beef, beef and bean, bean, chicken, and cheese. A request for any combination of stuffing will most likely be honored, though you may be charged accordingly. Dinner platters of the above overflow with rice and refried beans.

Fajitas are the specialty of the house. Marinated and then grilled in butter, onions, and bell pepper slices, the strips of skirt steak or chicken are a juicy, piquant treat. Instead of the out-of-season guacamole, a bean sopa brimming with cheese accompanied the platter, as did the light flour tortillas. Better still, however, was the mole de pollo, a tender chicken leg and thigh smothered in a sleek bittersweet chocolate sauce. This is a fine, smooth mole, with so many nuances you can almost identify a different spice each time you take a bite. Like a good wine, it has character and spunk as well as a traditional, robust flavor.

Emma Hernandez says the restaurant's business, while good, does not compare to its prehurricane status. Naturally, the press of people in the streets and stores was greatly diminished by the closure of the base A from now on it's a good bet the only air shows Homestead will be hosting will be thunderstorms and sunsets. Many residents, disheartened by the amount of repairs to be done, have moved away. Thanks to the hurricane's propensity for destruction of the past as well as the present, historic downtown Homestead has all the atmosphere of an Old West ghost town.

For those of us who live in Miami, Homestead may seem a long, depressing way to go for nachos. But it's the season for the Keys, and El Toro Taco is a wonderful alternative to the conch shacks along the highway further south. And our way isn't nearly as long as that of the Hernandez family, which in the proper American tradition has come so far, and suddenly, still has so far to go.


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