by leticia gonzales
photos by Stephanie Cameron
It’s early evening, June, northern New Mexico. The temperatures have risen, the rains are yet to come; I’ve spent all day in the field sowing, harvesting, weeding. As darkness arrives, I yawn and my stomach growls—do I go back outside and harvest more? Or do I yield to what is easy, to what I know I want: El Parasol tacos. The choice is clear to me, and I hop in my car.
To drive Casimiro Roca Memorial Highway from the village of Chimayó west to the town of Española is to travel some of the most fertile agricultural land in the state. At this point in the still-early summer, I am awash in blossoms, the plum, apricot, apple, peach trees floreciendo, tempting passing pollinators. The cooler night air hums alongside me, windows open and drinking in the coming night—I wonder if my great-grandmother felt the same sweetness of tired muscles coming in from the family milpa after a day of work.
I love the Española location of El Parasol the most. This is a controversial subject: people are ride-or-die fans of the iconic restaurant, but one should never assume that each location measures the same for every patron. My dad insists the burgers are best at the one on Dinosaur Trail, where he often stopped for lunch while zooming around on his inspection route for Santa Fe County before his retirement; my boss insists the El Parasol on Cities of Gold Road in Pojoaque has the most flavorful chicken tacos; there’s some agreement that the location in Los Alamos is still arriving at its fullest potential.
The sweeping cottonwoods shade me as I wait for my order in Española. Just next door, the river-rock building that houses El Paragua—the parent restaurant to all of the El Parasols—stands still-closed as we wait for a safer time to dine together. I’m delighted to people-watch, soaking up the Friday evening scene: girlfriends arriving post-manicure for a snack of posole; a man about my grandpa’s age ordering a Frito pie; hip couples eating tacos together at tables; locals taking their orders back home. I’m lulled into a sense of ease.
Time stands still here, not least of all because the busy pace of the taco stand is unabated—it seems to hold itself in a magical balance, never fewer people than there were when I arrived. It’s like watching the sand in an hourglass, each particle being replaced in the ever-tumbling cascade as soon as it falls. It occurs to me that I’ve been sitting and waiting for what seems like an age; I check my watch. My stomach is growing impatient.
In the last year and a half, I have learned that we like to imagine we live in agreements, but we are really living in and through our differences. Tacos are a classic example of this—nobody agrees entirely about what constitutes one: hard shell or soft? (El Parasol serves beautiful, soft, corn tortillas, fried crispy and doubled up; New Mexicans rejoice, fans of soft tacos find their assumptions challenged, but in a productive way.) Lettuce and tomato, or onions and cilantro? Cheese? What is used to spice the meat? Red chile, green chile, or salsa on top?
My favorite dish at El Parasol is a shredded beef taco, hot, à la carte, without any salsa, and I’m not afraid to proclaim it. When I was younger, my mother made us ground beef tacos in Pace taco shells, topped with shredded cheddar cheese, and the sweet, smoky, acid of El Parasol’s beef is like my childhood favorite, all grown up. They taste like New Mexico: the complexity of rich and simple side by side and coming to a harmony with what is holding it all together, the ever-important corn tortilla.
I consider myself fortunate, having spent all day among the dust and building tension. Every sense is awake to the meal in front of me, and I understand the work of growing corn, feeding animals, drying chile, pounding grains for meal, and adding warm water slowly, until the masa resolves and binds.
I check my watch again and wonder if my number has gotten lost. I’m so hungry I’m beginning to wonder if I’m actually a ghost . . .“M’ija, you’d better go up to the window, they haven’t called you yet.” A soft voice interrupts my reverie, and the man waiting for a Frito pie coalesces before me. At this little food truck, I’ve been known to meet angels.
leticia gonzales lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.