Tacos de tripa, mi amor,
It was inevitable that I’d fall for you. I’ve always had a taste for the deep and complex flavor profile of giblets—the bittersweetness of liver, the velvety constitution of kidneys. And you were there all along, wedged between them.
But how could I ever have imagined so perfect a convergence of taste and texture? The satisfying crunch of the deeply browned tripitas (beef intestines) cut into bite-size morsels, giving way to a more tender, buttery center. And what more felicitous match than a steaming corn tortilla, so delicate it could hardly resist tearing? Tacos de tripa were a match made in heaven—that is, Mexico.
I discovered tacos de tripa in the tiny Texas town of Presidio, where I worked for three years as a border reporter. My love for these tacos is inextricably tied to my love of that community and of the vast and spare Chihuahuan Desert that surrounds it. And Presidio, built along the banks of the Rio Grande, is tied to its Mexican sister city, Ojinaga.
The most beautiful thing about the desert is its austere emptiness, which instills in the desert dweller a sense of religious gratitude for the things it does provide. Little here goes to waste, and everything becomes precious: water, food, and, yes, even entrails.
For that very reason tacos de tripa are most common in the arid northern states of Mexico. Historically, tripe was the food of the working class, the have-nots. While the wealthier classes could afford choice cuts of meat, those who could not took what might otherwise be discarded.
Entrails are a food of the people, in Mexico and beyond. The tripe-based Philadelphia pepper pot, for example, is a dish that allegedly saved George Washington’s weary army from starvation during the American Revolution. A lesser-known detail of that story is that pepper pot had been a popular dish in the West Indies, though tripe was seldom used in the original. The inspiration for this dish that saved the hungry, war-worn men likely came from enslaved people, who brought it from the Caribbean. The army cook improvised, using what provisions were available—in this case tripe.
During the austerity measures of World War II, tripe was one of a handful of food products that weren’t rationed in Britain, while in America they cost fewer ration points than premium cuts. In an effort to encourage the American public to develop a taste for tripe, which had previously been snubbed, publishers began to put out cookbooks replete with recipes for giblets and offal.
Menudo, a popular tripe-based stew, was first prepared by peasants in pre-revolutionary Mexico. It gained popularity in the early 1900s as migrant workers from all over Mexico moved north. As Mexican-American communities developed all along the border, the comfort food was commodified and Americanized. Suddenly menudo came in a can.
On Sunday mornings in Presidio, it is common practice for the town’s residents to bring their own pots to the couple of restaurants in town that cook menudo in bulk. There they fill their pots with the steaming soup to take home to their families.
For most dishes containing tripe cooks use the muscle wall of the cow’s stomach, discernible by its stretchy honeycomb texture. The tripe used in tacos de tripa is taken from the tubular small intestines, which resemble tiny calamari when cut.
Just as utilitarian as the meat itself is the way it’s prepared. Tripas are traditionally fried until crisp in a wok-like large disco, constructed out of the iron tilling discs that drag through fields on the backs of farming tractors. The flat, wide disc is welded onto metal legs that stand atop a blazing fire.
Don Pancho’s restaurant in Ojinaga—a mere 15 minutes from downtown Presidio—prepares tripas with sauteed mushrooms and green onions, topped with parsley, and served alongside a pile of tiny piping-hot tortillas. A squeeze of a quarter lime onto each taco adds buoyancy to the savory profile.
Just a few miles away in Presidio, Elida Garcia—the woman who introduced me to tacos de tripa—alongside her husband, Ricky, serves her goods at town events like the Presidio Arts Festival. At celebrations like these the continuity of the US-Mexico border is apparent in the whirl of the folklórico dancers, dressed in vibrant skirts that blur into swaths of color; and in the mariachi bands that brandish their brassy instruments.
Elida cuts the long stretch of thoroughly cleaned innards, boils them, and tosses them in the disco, where they fry in a pound of lard. They’re ready when they float to the surface—or “when they’re crispy and chewy,” she says. She then seasons them with salt and serves them on a tortilla with pico de gallo, cabbage, and maybe a little avocado. Or not.
“I like it by itself,” she says. “More taste of tripas.”
On my last day in Presidio before I moved, we held a bash at the Presidio Trading Post & Cantina, the town’s only bar. When I arrived, Elida stood outside, methodically stirring the bubbling tripitas in her disco as steam curled off its edges. It was a surprise—my friends in town knew how much I love tacos de tripa, and they gifted me one last taste. That night we ate her exquisite tacos, drank beer, danced, and swung at a piñata filled with Mexican candy.
I will never forget that place. That vast, beautiful desert is filled with the humanity of those who brave its paucity and ask for nothing more. It is as precious as the rain, as nourishing as tripas.