So, what does tacos, Changzhou, and LeBron James have in common?
If you asked me this question yesterday, I would have been totally clueless and perplexed. I might have even shot you a rather pissed off look. I may have ripped some hair out while seething. However, now I know the answer. What do they have in common? There’s a dude in Wujin who apparently loves eating tacos, and LeBron James is his hero.
He has a shop, Taco James, on Wujin Wanda’s pedestrian street that is not that far from Shane English. All the decor is related to either Kobe or the Lakers. In Changzhou, the rumors of potential tacos tends to spread rapidly, and I was surprised I had never heard of this place. Turns out, the owner told me that he opened only a month ago.
So, enough of my jibber-jabber. Are the tacos any good? Before I answer that, I am going to say what I said the last time I posted about tacos: the debate over what is or isn’t an authentic taco bores me to death, as I am only concerned whether or not what I am eating tastes good.
I tried two types. One beef and one chicken. The toppings are not set on the menu. There’s a separate menu of “sauces” to pick from, and this allows you to customize. So, I chose salsa and sour cream — yes, actual sour cream.
The ground beef and chicken both seemed seasoned satisfactorily. Now, somebody might look at the above photo and wonder if a flour tortilla around a corn one might be overkill. Actually, it isn’t. Actually, it’s quite brilliant. Hard-shell tacos sometimes tend to crumble and fall apart while you are eating them. The outer soft tortilla keeps everything together should the corn shell shatter while you’re munching.
Here we have chips and salsa. The salsa is legit. If there is one complaint that I had on this surprise, first, accidental visit, it is this.
The menu has absolutely no English, so you have to use the camera option on your translation app. The above is fairly simple: beef, chicken, steak, and shrimp — in that descending order. The separate sauce menu got a little mangled on my phone. Plus, the owner has poor English skills. Talking to him requires a little bit of patience and using a voice translator on your phone. And don’t get me wrong. Despite the language barrier, he seems like a very cool guy, so in a very friendly way, I did suggest that if he was interested selling foreign food to foreigners, a bilingual menu would be a very good idea. Regardless of that, I am looking forward to going back. Are these the best tacos in the world? No. Of course not. But Changzhou is a veritable taco desert, and Taco James satisfactorily scratches this food itch in my book. That’s alright by me.
Skateboarding legend, all around cool guy, and notorious taco lover Tony Hawk once said, “The farther you get from the Mexican border, the worse Mexican food becomes.” I wouldn’t know, and I would have to trust him on that. I have never been to California, and I have been nowhere near the line separating the USA and its neighbor to the south. In that regard, I am not a good arbiter of what makes for an authentic or inauthentic taco. All I can speak to is what tastes good to me.
However, I can say Hawk’s maxim did hold true for Changzhou for a long time. A number of years ago, there used to be a chain called “Tacos.” It used to be at Wujin’s Injoy Plaza — what has now been renamed “Wu Yue.” Instead of using actual Mexican spices, they just put lots of black pepper on everything. Sour cream? They actually mistook mayonnaise for that. The menu was pricey, and I never saw anybody in there. So, I was not surprised when it went out of business. That place also had one of the most outrageous acts of Chinglish on its menu. Take a look …
For the longest time, if you wanted a taco, you either had to make one yourself or go to other cities, Wuxi being the closest. Eventually, Yabby Lake in Wujin had something if one needed to scratch a taco itch. For the sake of full disclosure, I haven’t actually been to that place since I moved to Xinbei. However, I have a friend that would vouch for them. However, something relatively new and neat has popped up.
Xinbei has tacos now, and they are fairly good. I have heard rumors that Daniel’s might be doing Mexican on their new menu in the future, but I haven’t had a chance to investigate. I’m talking about something else. I am talking about a place called Fossils on Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street. Fossils is a gut-and-remodel of the old City Corner Bar. Essentially, the owners wanted to reorient their business to towards food as well as pouring drinks. For example, you can get a decent burger here on a pretzel bun. However, I found myself instantly drawn to the Mexican-inspired options. Changzhou really doesn’t have a lot of that sort of stuff.
Not only do they have hard and soft tacos, but they have quesadillas, burritos, and tostadas. Die hard taco purists might bemoan the lack of guacamole or sour cream, but I have to say I have enjoyed everything I have tried on Fossils’ menu thus far. I also say “Mexican-style” because one of their tacos uses German sausage. I was highly skeptical about that at first, and I actually ordered it with dread. Turns out, it actually works well with the other things in the hard tortilla shell. Moving on, let’s talk about something else with a very high Yum Factor.
They have smothered french fries that incorporates pulled pork, beef gravy, and mozzarella cheese. Can anybody say poutine? It’s very close without actually being that beloved Canadian staple. Still, I loved it and would highly recommend it.
But would a hardcore Canadian from Alberta like it? Well, yes. I actually drank beer and ate at Fossils with one of those types, recently.
So, on to my point. I actually find the food debate of “Is it authentic?” tiresome when it comes to living as a foreigner in China. It’s a pointless argument that will never be won. “Is it authentic?” is not the question somebody should be asking. The question should be: “Does it taste good when you put the food into your mouth, chew, and swallow?” The answer to that — when it comes to Fossils, their poutine, their Mexican fare, and other things — is yes. It’s quite tasty. I look forward to slowly trying all of the other stuff on their menu.
For what it’s worth, it should also be noted that Fossils basically recently opened. The owners and the chef are still tweaking the menu, and so there may be other things in works — I heard a rumor that there might be daily specials at some point. There is nothing really vegetarian, by the way. However, the tacos and messy fries are essentially there to stay. That makes me a happy guy that will be returning often. Also, there is no lunch service, and the doors open at 5:30.
NOTE: This is a very old post cross-published from my personal blog. It’s also much longer than your average Real Changzhou post.
Here is a very surreal question requiring a nonsensical answer: how can you use saliva as building blocks? Specifically, when trying to build a wharf? As a liquid, it would never happen – unless you froze it and made ice bricks. For a time, I used to ponder this question and daydreamed of cargo ships and cruise liners moored to a dock while floating on a tranquil saliva sea. A mouth’s pink, ridged upper palate would double as the sky, reddened and swollen gums would make up the shoreline, and decayed molars would provide housing and infrastructure to the wharf and the pueblo-like town around it. Dockhands and day laborers would probably look like the offspring between a mutated Walt Disney dwarves and the oompa loompas you would find in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Hopefully, they won’t whistle while they work. What about a lighthouse? Easily covered: it would be a chipped fang or incisor retrofitted with a bright and rotating searchlight.
What would prompt such disgusting and grotesque daydreams on my part? Actually, “Saliva Wharf” is the English name of a northern Changzhou candy shop. Several times, I have walked passed it while wandering the pedestrian street outside of the Xinbei Wanda shopping mall. Most times, I saw a few kids gleefully inspecting bulk bins of sweets while their mothers looked on in a rather disinterestedly. The absurd English name used to captivate me, but it doesn’t anymore. It’s just bad Chinglish, and the more you live in China, the more you become immune to the weird Chinese-to-English collisions. Basically, Chinglish is boring once the novelty wears off. Even with that jaded point of view, one is bound to run into epic English bastardizations. They end up so ridiculous you have to laugh in spite of yourself, take a picture, and show it to everybody you come across. I recently came across such an extreme abomination.
The words “Fresh Scallop Asshole” in blocky black fonts stared right back at me. I scratched my head. I squinted. I even turned the page and turned back just to make sure I was hallucinating. I tried to make sensing of the wording and just couldn’t. Unlike “saliva wharf,” I didn’t even want to have playfully gross interpretations. Sure, I have a fundamentally demented sense of humor most of the time, but the thought of a scallop’s rectum stretches that a bit far. Eventually, I just shrugged, took a cell phone picture, and moved on. Sure, I showed said photo to anybody and everybody remotely interested.
Weeks passed, and for some reason, curiosity still gnawed at me. It went beyond the bad Chinglish. Of course, Tacos wasn’t actually serving “Fresh Scallop Assholes.” First, such things really don’t exist, and even if they did, they would be impossibly tiny. Eventually, I returned to Tacos to eat because 1) I wanted to know what the Chinese version of “Fresh Scallop Asshole” said on the menu, and 2) I like scallops, so it seemed worth the risk. The picture showed something that looked breaded and fried. Certainly, it couldn’t be that bad?
Even before I walked into the restaurant I felt kind of leery. The Wujin Tacos has a caricature of a Mexican painted onto its window. It complete with brown skin, a bushy mustache, and a big sombrero. That’s about the only thing remotely “Mexican” about the place. Once inside, the décor looks really strange. The chairs alternated between black and yellow. Black and white framed photography adorned the walls. Nothing in this place honestly spoke of “Mexico” the country. Contrast that with eateries in the USA, where the Mexican flag seems draped everywhere as a matter of pride. The lack of a theme continued into the menu. Sure, I found the “fresh scallop asshole” item again rather easily, but the other food items also confused me. You had your standard steaks and chicken wing dishes, but none of that is actually Mexican. The more I flipped through the menu, the more I thought Tacos just dresses itself up as “exotic” and “western” for Chinese people who might not know better.
Eventually, I found two things listed as “tacos” – one chicken and one beef. I called waitress over and ordered both. Then, I flipped back to the “Fresh Scallop Asshole” picture and pointed. At this point, the waitress wrinkled her brows at me. She tapped her pen against order pad and grew more confused. She glanced over her shoulder and shouted loudly towards the kitchen. Somebody in the kitchen loudly shouted back. She slightly shook her head no and said “没有” (not have). I smiled. Why was I not surprised? It meant either of two things. Either diners hold “fresh scallop assholes” in high demand, and they have a hard time keeping the ingredients in stock, or nobody orders it all. Since there was only one other diner in this nearly empty restaurant, I figured nobody orders it – especially English speaking foreigners who might find the name a bit scary. I smiled pointed back at “Fresh Scallop Asshole” and dismissively waved “not want.”
It seemed awhile to get my tacos, though. All four of them were profoundly underwhelming. They used flour tortillas – not the hard and crispy shells usually made from corn meal. Both the chicken and the beef were under seasoned. Sure, the meat had some juice to it, but I seemed to taste the vegetables more. They seemed only minimally dusted with a bit of black pepper. But that was all. All in all, the tacos were bland. The beef ones were even more confusing. Each taco had two medium rare strips of steak, but they were meager. It’s even more appalling once you consider the
price tag. I have had filling and satisfying meals at Chinese noodle joints for 15RMB. Each underwhelming taco order was easily twice that amount. The more I thought about, I realized that Taco Bell fast food back in America had more “Mexican Authenticity” than this place.
Before I left, I tried to puzzle out the characters in the Chinese menu description. I had looked at the photo I had taken. I could make out most of it with the help of Baidu Translate on my smart phone, but one character kept giving me trouble. The character was set against a wood-grained background, and that proved too hard for my cell phone’s camera and optical character recognition software. I squinted and scowled over “fresh scallop asshole” for awhile until just summarily gave up. In the end, I sent the menu picture to one my most trusted Chinese friends. Turns out, “Fresh scallop assholes” are actually just type of fried fish meatball. Buttocks and sphincters are not involved at all. Really. A graphic designer must have fed the Chinese menu description into a machine translator like Baidu Translate. That person must have cut-and-pasted the resulting English into the menu template without bothering to check. Obviously, the designer in question must have had no English skills at all. You don’t have to be fluent to know “asshole” is a naughty and impolite word.
My good friend and I traded WeChat messages over the subject, and I complained, a lot. I said things like “Some Mexican dishes are not that hard to make.”
“Aha,” she replied. “You know how to cook. Feed yourself!”
A day later, I did just that. I browned some ground pork in my wok, added a sliced red onion, and a can of red kidney beans. Paprika and a few heavy dashes of Tabasco sauce soon followed. I would have made guacamole too, but I didn’t have any avocados to mash, and I didn’t feel like going to the supermarket. Even if I had avocados, you would need diced tomatoes and a lime to do it right, and limes are hard to find in my end of China. Once simmered for awhile, it went into a tortilla wrap with a lot of cheddar cheese. It was both a simple and delicious burrito. Sure, my cooking is not “real Mexican” food, but it’s certainly more authentic than what you’ll find listed on Tacos’ menus.