MASA CLUB DE TACOS
I stood in my small kitchen and pressed the imported Nicaraguan coffee grounds to the bottom of my red french press, and poured hot coffee into the two short tea cups, adding a dash of milk and a teaspoon of azucar negra. I sat down across from Kevin and pushed one of the cups towards him.
Kevin, in his cut-off tee-shirt, had brought over two Oreo truffles, leftover dessert from his supper club, MASA, which I attended the evening before. They were even better the next day, with the coffee.
“Mmmm the sweet perks of being a blogger. It doesn’t pay, but it’s totally the best job in the world.” I said. “I have an excuse to try the newest restaurants and talk to the chefs.”
The truffles were great, and I told Kevin that. I thought the dessert perfectly summed up the entire philosophy of MASA. The pretension of the truffle is trumped by the humble Oreo, bridging two strata of culinary classes with a dessert fusion for Plebeians and Patricians, alike.
“That was the entire concept behind MASA”, Kevin explained, “to take the exclusivity and the lack of access to the city’s culinary diversity and the closed door scene and make them accessible to everyone.”
In spite of myself, I often complain about the lack of culinary diversity in Buenos Aires, but my complaint isn’t fair. I can find any of the foods that I was used to eating in the States here in Buenos Aires. I can have sushi delivered to my house, I can eat raw, organic, vegetarian cuisine, I can find Texas BBQ and bagels with lox, but not easily, and not cheaply.
I really miss Mexican food.
“Me too,” agreed Kevin. “Growing up in California, tacos were everywhere. My nostalgia for those hole-in-the-wall taco stands was a big part of creating MASA. It isn’t that I can’t find Mexican food here; it’s that those restaurants only belong to a certain part of the city, and they are only accessible to a small group of foreigners and locals with the budget to eat out at those types of restaurants. You can see that restriction in all areas of culture in this city. You have to save up your money just to see a band on tour. This class system has developed where one group of people have access to culture and the other group doesn’t. I don’t think that’s what Mexican food is about.”
“Well, closed door restaurants are exclusive by nature. Not everyone has access to that specialty.” I provoked.
Kevin rebutted: “Excluding people based on access to information is ok with me. There isn’t anything I can do about that, but I’m morally opposed to denying people this experience because of money. So MASA has an open payment policy at our public dinners. I keep my food budget as low as I possibly can. The menus are designed not just with how different colors and textures and tastes will interact, but how everything combines price wise. That allows me to put a minimum contribution, meaning people that don’t have a lot of money to go out and eat can put the bare minimum, and those that are able to can determine the value. People have been really receptive, there is a lot of diversity in the people who come.”
“So very true,” I agreed.
“So when I graduated college, I moved in with my grandparents to save money to return to Buenos Aires. I was working three jobs and spending as much time with my Grandpa as I could, because he was reaching the end of his life. He was a very passionate cook, and he had a moral aversion to dining out. It had become uncomfortable for him to stand and cook and so when I moved in, cooking became my responsibility on the nights I wasn’t working a night shift. I’d come home from work and he would have a recipe and ingredients set out in the kitchen and it was my job to prepare the meal.”
“Ah ha, so that’s where you learned how to cook!” I chimed in.
“Exactly. This extra job I had of preparing meals became a nightly ritual. I’d make a Rob Roy and he’d have a Miller and we’d drink and he’d tell me about his life. He was pretty stubborn in the kitchen and insisted that I stay exact to his recipes that he’d perfected over the years, but I always wanted to try a new spice or an extra ingredient to change the color. It was a fun interchange.”
My heart melted, and I fondly recalled memories of baking pies with my own late Grandmother. When I bake, I always think of her.
Kevin continued: “So after living with my grandparents for about eight months I came back to Buenos Aires. I kept cooking and figuring out my style. I hate eating dinner alone, so I was always inviting someone over to eat. That was another tradition passed on by my Grandfather. The meeting of people to share a meal is just as important as the food that is served.”
“I totally agree.” I interrupted. “That’s why I love going to closed door restaurants. The food is great. The chef-direct style of dining ensures so much thought and attention are put into every dish. I love hearing the chef’s presentation of a dish, and the completeness of a menu that has been designed from start to finish. The food is amazing, but what keeps me trying more closed doors is the aspect of a shared meal. I always meet the coolest people at closed door dinners.”
While dining at MASA the night before I had met an architect, a photographer, a sailing instructor and a TEFL teacher and his girlfriend who had just finished up two years in Korea and were traveling through South America. We had an amazing conversation and lingered over a long dinner, chatting in English and Spanish.
But company aside, the four course menu had been delicious. It was simple and satisfying, like comfort food, but with a nice variety and gourmet twists. Kevin had a knack for blending savory, sweet and spicy flavors into the same dish. We had started with an appetizer of refried black beans with a mouthwatering creamy sweet-potato salsa, served with homemade tortilla chips for scooping.
The next course was a brightly colored salad, a spin on coleslaw with purple cabbage, red bell peppers and mandarin orange slices. It was the perfect follow up to the appetizer and had a light, tangy vinaigrette.
The main course was the highlight: two perfect and exotic tacos. One was a Korean pork taco made from bondiola, marinated in gochujang and orange juice. It was spicy and tender and topped with mango and julienned carrot, which added an unexpected sweetness and crunch.
The other taco was a beer battered fish taco, served with apple slices and a creamy paprika, lemon sauce. It was a perfect fusion of crispy and mild. The tortillas were handmade.
Dessert was amazing, and even better the next day. I liked that MASA served fresh fruit with the dessert. The meal was colorful and unpretentious, gourmet and satisfying.
“So where did this word ‘MASA’ come from?” I asked Kevin.
“Masa refers to the dough used to make the tortillas. It is the most basic element of the dinner, just water, oil and flour. It is the meal’s simplest ingredient, and the most fundamental. There’d be no dinner without the masa. I like this idea of valuing simplicity. Also, ‘Masa’ is slang for someone that’s the man, someone that has become a sort of legend, someone cool. Simple name, straightforward food, a cool shared meal. Masa.”
I laughed. “MASA is totally masa.”