On the outskirts of Roma, Texas, a little town that is more Mexico than America, lies El Jaripeo, an eatery more food cart than restaurant that touched me in ways I'm only beginning to understand, because, you see, when I close my eyes at night I picture tacos.
Roma is about halfway between McAllen and Laredo on the border of Mexico. With a population of just under 10,000 people and located a good ten to twenty miles from the nearest Wal-Mart, H.E.B., or American movie theater, it's a relatively isolated place. The local high school doesn't throw a homecoming dance, because they can't compete with the allure of Mexico where even the freshman are free to drink and party without concern. In my two years there I watch helplessly as brush fires worked their way towards my neighborhood, saw children raft through our yards after heavy rains flooded our streets and houses, and fell asleep to the sounds of gunshots ringing in holidays- Mexican and American alike.
Still, despite the problems, Roma was my homa for two of the best years of my life. I met great people, learned things I would never have learned had I taken every course in our college catalog, and ate absolutely fantastic food... which returns me to El Jaripeo. El Jaripeo sits just off Highway 83 between Roma and Escobares. It has no parking lot- only a bit of field worn ragged by an untold number of cars and trucks- and if you don't feel like exiting your vehicle, one of the high schoolers working there will be happy to come to you. Despite the oppressive heat of the valley, if you eat there, you eat outside. I always found this particularly satisfying since it gave me time to pick chile pequines from one of the wild bushes surrounding the trailer to spice up my meal. It was on one of these hot nights, as trucks roared along the dusty lanes of 83, that I realized this was the perfect restaurant. My favorite thing about El Jaripeo is that the only structure permanently attached to the ground, or so it seems, is a lone fireplace where Mesquite wood, salt, and lime, meld so perfectly that I salivate with just the thought. I've never had Mexican food in Mexico or anywhere else that even comes close to the food I got in Roma.
I bring all this up, because El Jaripeo served Papa Loca which was a baked potato- actually two baked potatoes- that had been cooking in Mesquite coals all day, loaded with cheese, sour cream, onion, cilantro, and a ridiculous quantity of carne. I'd go with a few friends and we'd get this as an appetizer of sorts and then be full before would could even touch our tacos- and we still wouldn't have finished the Papa Loca. So with some of my left over carne I made a much inferior, but still satisfying Papa Loca of my own. Even with one potato it took me two nights to eat. I highly recommend it if you have leftover meat and a potato and hopefully you won't forget the onion and you'll actually have cilantro in your fridge to complete the deal.