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September 21, 2011

The Taste Bud: Bite your tongue

The first time I was confronted with the prospect of eating a taco de lengua at a Mexican tacqueria, it was a bit of a foreign proposition.

Think about it: On one hand, it’s a taco, and there are few things better than a taco. On the other hand, it’s a taco filled with chopped cow tongue. Hmm. It does have a bit of an eww factor to it. And some people simply insist they don’t want to taste anything that could taste them back. Understood.

Over the years, however, I have become a lover of lengua, particularly when it comes to traditional tacos that involve double corn tortillas, diced onions and plenty of cilantro. And since there are no traditional tacquerias in my neighborhood, I was a happy gringo when La Rosita recently opened a new restaurant on Market Street downtown. (There is also a location in Southern Indiana, but forget about taking the Sherman Minton Bridge to patronize it.)

As a fan, I’m now amused at the way many react to a taco de lengua. My girlfriend wrinkled her nose at my offer of a bite recently, and merely went on eating her guacamole. One friend called my love for lengua “jacked up.”

Clearly, we are not all speaking in the same tongue. (Ha ha. Oh, sorry.)

My friend Andrew — who, coincidentally, took me to my first tacqueria a number of years ago — commented, “I don’t wanna be the one to drive this in the wrong direction, but how long can this topic survive the tongue/taco juxtaposition?”

Andrew is always there to take it one step too far.

Seriously, if you think about it, lengua is still just meat. It’s beef, you know? Come on, people eat round steak, and that’s just butt. Yes, if you eat braised round, you’re eating a marinated butt. Heck, maybe the problem is simply that people immediately know what a tongue is. People eat beef tripe, too. Um, that’s stomach, folks.

And what about sweetbreads? Yeah, that’s made from the thymus gland, located in the animal’s neck, or the pancreas. Sweetbreads? Really? Now we’re just talking about passing off weird food with really clever marketing.

At any rate, I grabbed a pair of tacos de lengua to go from La Rosita recently and was delighted to find the quality was spot on. La Rosita in particular seems to be adept at slow-braising the lengua, because the meat always seems to be moist and tender. And because it is chopped, the texture is not, well, too tongue-like.

And while it’s true that beef tongue tastes a tad gamey — it has a flavor and texture vaguely similar to other internal organs, such as liver — I still think the unique flavor is not really all that far off from a decent hunk of beef roast. It’s distinctive and different, to be sure, but also familiar somehow. The flavorful nature of the meat is probably because the tongue is a muscle that gets plenty of exercise
(unlike the butt).

Luckily, there are tacquerias springing up all over town. The tacos de lengua at La Rosita start at $2.75, and they are stuffed with a pile of tender tongue, so three makes a decent-sized meal. You can also find tacos de lengua at La Tapatia on Preston near the Outer Loop, Santa Fe Grill on Third Street, and at plenty more spots. (And you can find some pretty cheap prices at times as well.)

Now, while I have publicly come out in defense of the beef tongue taco, when it comes to menudo — the traditional Mexican soup made with beef stomach — I will probably have to decline. It’s one thing to taste something that could taste me back, and yet another to digest something that could digest me in return.