Texas greeted us with towering overpasses wrapped around each other in figure eights, enormous parking lots, box stores, strip malls, and twelve-lane highways lined with gaudy Tex-Mex restaurants. Almost immediately, it felt bigger, grander, more robust than where we'd been. We got pedicures that came with free "margaritas" (red-dyed slushies with heavy pours of tequila). We ate tortillas with butter and huge plates of refried beans and yellow cheese.
It felt good to get to Dallas. We'd spent the last 2 days trying to make it out of Arkansas with an engine problem we couldn't diagnose. Intuitively we knew it was bad -- the truck could drive, but it made these awful noises that sounded like short explosions followed by rattling under our feet. We Googled it and tried to diagnose it until we drove ourselves crazy. It was so frustrating that we could barely talk to each other. Eventually we called AAA, who towed us 45 minutes to Little Rock and dropped us at a chain mechanic that couldn't diagnose it either. The guy gave us a list of expensive parts and problems, fixed something that didn't need fixing, and sent us off with the same noises. After some more Googling we adjusted our fuel pressure regulator and for maybe 100 miles the noise stopped. We screamed along to the lyrics of "Independent Women" by Destiny's Child and momentarily reckoned that we were actually mechanics. Somewhere over the border, the noise came back; the truck sounded more and more like shit and we slowly puttered into places, defeated. We stayed at a Motel 6 that night, and by that I mean we secretly camped in their parking lot and took (fully nude) "showers" next to their fenced-in pool. It was a dark time in our journey.
In Dallas we met Ronny: a vintage car mechanic who FINALLY, quickly, and easily diagnosed the fact that our ignition points had blown. He told us we'd been driving on 2 cylinders (out of 4... for probably 600 miles) and couldn't believe we made it as far as we did. It was an easy, relatively cheap fix but it was the beginning of what became a hilarious and literal crawl across the country and auto shop tour of the West. It was around the same time that we finally solved another problem in the camper. Our main drawer was falling out of the wall every time we turned and we'd spent weeks putting it back in every 50 miles until one day it took a part of the wall with it. We'd resigned to keeping the drawer on the floor and climbing over it. We went to Home Depot and spent hours buying different sizes of wood and door fasteners until we fixed it. It felt like fucking Christmas when the wood fit and the piece held the drawer in place. We'd finally conquered two obstacles out of fifteen, and we drove to Austin, through the long stretch of i35, riding the high of a drawer that stayed in place for the first time (it's the little things in life).
Austin, after the car frustrations and all the parking lots we slept in, and the week without a shower, was a refuge. We parked our truck in the carport of our friends' Air BNB and spent three days running around the city, drinking Shiner Bock and eating nothing but tacos. We went to Veracruz, hungover, where we ate migas tacos with giant cups of fresh cantaloupe juice and cucumber aquas frescas; to Quickie Pickie, a hipster mini-mart, where Ilana fell in love with a bean, cheese, and avocado taco; to a kind of crappy diner that used shredded American cheese; and to a Mexican grocery store in the outskirts of Austin where we found this addictively creamy, somewhat smoky, spicy but not too spicy salsa that we’ve been thinking about for a month now.
I spent the last week researching salsas and testing them in my sister’s kitchen in Colorado. Ilana and I texted pictures and ideas back and forth and tried four or five different recipes before landing on this one. We also made some killer vegetarian refried beans and replicated our favorite taco from Quickie Pickie.
Bean & Avocado Tacos
Makes 4 Tacos
For the Tacos
4 tortillas, preferably flour
2 cups refried beans
1 avocado, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 fresh jalapeño, sliced very thinly on a mandolin
1/4 cup Cotija cheese, crumbled
+ creamy guajillo & arbol salsa (recipe below)
For the Refried Beans
2 tbl olive oil
2 tbl butter
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 medium sized yellow onion, diced
2 cups cooked pinto beans, with cooking liquid
salt & black pepper to taste
To Make The Beans:
Take 1/2 cup of cooked beans and place in a blender with 1/4 cup of cooking liquid (if using canned beans, use the canning liquid and extra water if necessary). Blend until smooth and set aside.
Heat olive oil and butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté, stirring constantly, until soft (about five minutes). Using a slotted spoon, add the remaining one and half cups of beans to the hot pan and follow with one cup of the cooking liquid. Use a potato masher or the back of a spoon to mash the beans to desired consistency (we liked them half smashed). Add the blended bean pureé and stir to combine. Season with salt + pepper to taste.
Heat the tortillas over an open flame, flipping once until both sides are warm and charred in spots. Immediately wrap them in a kitchen towel to let steam.
Layer the beans into the tortilla with the sliced avocado. Top with large pieces of fresh cilantro, a sprinkle of jalapeño slices and Cotija cheese. Finish with the creamy salsa.
We used store bought tortillas to make things easier, but if you're feeling ambitious, check out this recipe to make your own flour tortillas at home -- they will be tremendously better.
Creamy Arbol & Guajillo Salsa
Makes about 2 cups
2 tbl olive oil
6 cloves garlic
1/2 medium sized yellow onion, diced
8 dried Guajillo chiles, stems removed
4-6 dried Arbol chiles, stems removed
1/2 small tomato or three cherry tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 cups water
salt to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until toasted. Add the onions and continue cooking for about 3 minutes until soft. Add the chiles and toss until slightly softened and toasty, about 1 minute. Add the tomato and 1/2 cup of the water and cook until the tomatoes start to fall apart and the liquid is absorbed.
Remove from the pan and place in a blender. Add the water in 1/2 cup increments, blending between, until the salsa is creamy and well blended (the amount of water you'll need depends on your tomatoes, etc, so be cautious and add slowly). Season with salt to taste.