Tacos on the Mesa

My children have all attended our local community school — Flynn, now 15, is in high school, his sister Willa, 13, is in middle school, and Imogen — the youngest at 8 — is our last kid at Topanga Elementary.

Vaquero Colgin on the Mesa

Each year, there is a fundraiser to raise money for the school, in the form of an event/dinner/auction. In the past, themes have included “1970s (roller girls and disco),” “1980s (hairspray, lots of pink and purple),” with live bands to match, “Totally Topanga” in which you were supposed to dress up in hippy garb, I suppose. One event was held at a spectacular mountain-top midcentury modern with views of city, ocean and islands, and Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes performing; another particularly unsuccessful version was held in a Marriott ballroom near the airport.

I provided food for two of these events — the decades ones, in fact — turning out pizzas and cowboy ribeyes from a wood-fired outdoor oven at the 70s event, and fancy small plate courses for the 80s. This year, after a decade being asked and politely declining, I finally joined our school’s version of the PTA. And was promptly asked to produce the entire event.

 

Don Schneider at the Santa Maria grill

Having attended nearly a dozen such fundraisers in the past, I was able to consider what I liked and didn’t like about previous events, and what I might do we’re I the one in charge (which I now was). One thing I didn’t so much enjoy about the past events was what often felt to me like rigid scheduling by a Type A event producer — cocktails at 5:45, dinner at 6:15, live auction at 7, dessert at 8… etc. At the prior events where I had cooked, I could tell I was causing great anxiety with my general indifference to schedules. (“I’m not serving dinner yet, it’s not done!”)

I’m decidedly Type B. And I host pretty good parties. So I simply decided to throw a great party. The date was already set at May 4. A day before Cinco de Mayo. And so we would jump the holiday and do Quatro de Mayo. I had a theme!

Our event would take place on a wild and remote plateau in the canyon called “The Mesa,” where my friends Sue and Martin have a ranch where we had once done a very successful pop-up restaurant fundraiser.

The very first, most important thing to do was to find and hire a good mariachi band. I called some an amigo, was directed to one band but they were busy. So a whole lot of internet research later, I hired Mariachi Mexico de Sylmar. They looked great in photos in their matching mariachi garb, the band’s leader was named, “Nacho.” I was hopeful.

Next was to secure a Santa Maria grill belonging to a Topanga old timer, and plan my menu. In terms of people pleasing, there are few certainties in life as solid as the taco. For two days prior to the event, I drove around the San Fernando Valley with the school credit card, made salsas, slow roasted a cochinita pibil, delivered several large briskets to my pal, Desmond, a Texan with a nimble finger at the smoker. The food gods were smiling and the stars were aligning.

When hosting, as opposed to simply cooking, there are many things to consider besides tortillas and salsas. Toilets, for example. How to get the deluxe VIP restroom trailer I rented up the twisty road and onto the uneven event site. What to do when it is delivered to the wrong part of the event site. (Because we didn’t want our toilets right in the middle of the dining and auction area.) How to get lights to the event. How to get WiFi so we could check people in and swipe their credit cards. What to do when your friend who has graciously donated her ranch decides she doesn’t want drunk people driving back down that twisty road and so you must figure out another way to get your guests there. Now I’m an artist, mind you — this is not my comfort zone. But it was good to stretch my logistics muscle and realize that I was capable when pressed into duty.

I assembled my A-team of helpers — including pal Katy, my don’t-drink-too-much-while-you-cook minder, who’s daughter Lucy produced a lovely assembly of Mexican sweets for dessert. (A portion of the meal I usually don’t devote too much thought to.) A mountain of mesquite set ablaze promised good things to come.

It was a perfect evening on the Mesa — a Western sun warming the sandstone and sage as it settled toward the ridge, the horse stables and dusty corral area where we held the event decorated with piñatas, papel picado and hay bales covered in colorful Mexican blankets. Trumpets and violins set a decidedly festive atmosphere as Nacho and his band of eight struck up the nostalgic sound of mariachi, and the first shuttles began delivering guests

Behind the grill, we poured ourselves some Pacifico from the keg, sipped a little mezcal and got to work. And the tacos? Even after Katy accidentally spilled two thirds of my key salsa, the results did not disappoint. Desmond’s brisket never fails to elicit lustful sighs — and there was some talk of taking the Colgin-and-Burrows taco show on the road. Crispy tlayudas, a specialty of Oaxaca slathered with lard and black beans, was another hit.

*    *    *

The evening’s reviews were extremely positive — the venue was enchanting, the band fantastic and the food unforgettable. How about the hosting? Well, I suppose if you do your job correctly, people don’t even notice the hosting…

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Taco, I Can’t Quit You

Bruce was having trouble posting a comment on my “Goodbye, Year of the Taco” post.

“What did you want to say?” I asked, being that I was now standing beside him in person and could simply accept the comment first-hand.

“I was going to ask why the Year of the Taco has to end.”

“Well,” I replied, “It doesn’t really end. That was more for the narrative and thematic purposes of my blog.”

He looked puzzled, but the answer seemed to comfort him.

The kids and I on the hunt — the prized lion's mane!

The kids and I on the hunt — the prized bear’s head!

As it happened, we were at Bruce and my mother’s house deep in the forest of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley for our annual holiday visit, and there would be tacos on the menu. Our second evening there, we had a crab feast. The next day, the leftover crab made for a perfect lunch of one of my favorite tacos. More

Tacos, Foiled!

I was trying to make tacos, a simple enough goal.

And yet, I was being foiled.

Veracruz-style fish tacos

Veracruz-style fish tacos

Whilst in Seattle, my pal Bob reminded me that it was the “Year of the Taco” at Skinny Girls & Mayo. I hadn’t exactly forgotten, per se — but I clearly hadn’t been focusing any of my narrative attention lately to the recording of taco adventures in the kitchen. More

Tacotopia, Episode #5 — In Praise of Leftovers

Leftover steak is always a welcome thing in our home. It’s uses are many, beyond simply having tasty leftover steak in the fridge: Vietnamese beef salad or spring rolls, pasta Bolognese, steak sandwiches… And, perhaps most deliciously of all, tacos.

The taco

The taco

Even under normal circumstances, I’m always on the hunt for new taco inspiration. This particular day, in addition to the leftover steak, I had some roasted pasilla chiles in the fridge. An exceptional combination, thought I — especially with the addition of some slices mushrooms and monterrey jack cheese. More

Tacotopia, Episode #3: In Praise of Gringo Tacos

My family loves Taco Bell. “Can we stop at Taco Bell!?” the kids yell anytime we drive past one. And sometimes we relent, because we love Taco Bell too!

Taco shells and Taco Bell seasoning

Taco shells and Taco Bell seasoning

Not in the same way we love a good Baja fish tacos, or al pastor tacos on the street in Jalisco. But the comforting crunch of a gringo taco, as I like to call them — hard shell, spiced ground beef, shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, a few tiny cubes of flavorless tomato and taco sauce — is its own piece of nostalgic heaven. More

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