Think underground supper clubs, food trucks, and pop-up stores are confined to the big-name food cities like New York, Paris, San Francisco, or Portland? Think again. GFS Contributor Tessa Barber sheds some light on one of the coolest additions to the Pittsburgh dining scene.
You may not think of Pittsburgh as a great Mexican food destination. Our Spanish-speaking population was only at about 12% at the last census count. And despite two recent higher-end taco-centric restaurants opening in the last year (Yo Rita and Round Corner Cantina), and the old standbys (Mad Mex, el Campesino for those with cars), it was still pretty hard for West Coast transplants Alyson Youngblood (California) and Tara Goe (Oregon) to find the cheap, quality tacos and burritos that they’d grown up eating.
What separates Alyson and Tara from the rest of the pack, besides cooking skills, is that they are sharers. They didn’t just sit at home and hoard their taco knowledge base. No, they created the Private Taco Club. Part taco stand, part gathering of friends, the club exists in that liminal world of food enjoyment—past the point when you’re simply making meals to eat, but not yet to the place where you’re considering culinary school or taking restaurant management classes—where some of the best things can happen.
I have the good fortune to know both Alyson and Tara as fellow dedicated library workers. I’ve personally witnessed Alyson’s commitment to making sauerkraut, lemon sun pickle, ginger beer, sourdough bread, and other slow, patient food magic, and I became curious about their food philosophies and how one actually makes a donation-based food party happen. Then I was actually able to attend the latest (and maybe last before the winter) Private Taco Club. I got a plate full of basically the entire menu, reproduced here:
- Tofu of the Now – tomorrow’s tofu tomorrow. What does that mean? I don’t know, and neither do you.
- Pinto-Seitan Chorizo – delicious, thick, meaty chorizo.
- Frijoles de Olla – simple, humble pinto beans, like your favorite saint.
- Mendo Rice – Mexican rice with coconut milk, made with mellow vibes.
- Spicy Slaw – tangy, crunchy, and necessary for tacos.
- Vegan Cheese Sauce – ridiculously goodcreamycheesy. Yes.
- Queso Blanco – handmade by a real curmudgeon.
- Salsa de Plaza and Salsa de Pepitas – the word “pungent” probably doesn’t describe either of these salsas.
- Pique Criollo – vinegar infused with chiles and garlic.
Holy Moses, was it ever good. The flavors and textures were balanced, so nothing was too garlicky or vinegary or chewy or soft. It was like an edible representation of happiness in community, and so fresh! This food and its creators needed more exposure. So I asked Alyson and Tara to share some of the stories behind the Private Taco Club. They agreed, and, as a bonus, shared a recipe with me.
How did the idea of the Private Taco Club germinate? How did it get from idea to actual thing that happened?
Alyson: I think Tara came up with the basic idea for the Private Taco Club. We grew up on the west coast, where there are a lot of really great taquerias. When I lived in San Francisco, taquerias were pretty much the only places I could afford to eat out ($4-5 for a giant burrito filled with rice, beans, avocado, salsa, cheese, and sour cream!). Pittsburgh doesn’t really have a west coast-style taqueria, and we wanted to eat and share the food we missed, so we decided to fill that void. And, for me, I wanted to experiment with cooking on a larger scale, and in a more public venue.
We ran the idea by a few friends, and they seemed into it, so we decided to try it out. Start-up costs were pretty low. We both cook a lot, so we had just about everything we needed. After our first taco club, I used the donations to buy a buffet warmer and an iced condiment tray. Tara bought an electric griddle and a rain shelter thing. We wanted it to grow slowly, as we could afford it, and as demand necessitated it.
Tara: Also, prior to the Private Taco Club (henceforth referred to as PTC) I knew Alyson was interested in doing some sort of Secret Cafe. I was at Josza Corner for a friend’s birthday when I started thinking about tacos—it’s a wonderful little Hungarian restaurant in Hazelwood where you have to make an appointment to eat there. Although it is a “real” restaurant, it’s very communal and intimate and feels like you’re dining in someone’s cluttered living room.
I had been drinking some wine when it occurred to me that my new apartment had a backyard, and that maybe that backyard could be used for something other than lounging. I think I might have even sent Alyson a drunken text to the effect of, “Hey, would you like to start a taco stand in my backyard?” I started talking about the idea to folks, but I don’t think they really took me seriously. As always, I was actually secretly pretty serious about it.
I would be lying if I said the PTC was ‘authentic Mexican food,’ but I don’t think that was the point of the project. I think we wanted to make affordable food that hopefully tasted good, and create a fun neighborhood experiment.
What was your proudest taco moment? Worst taco moment?
Tara: I don’t think there were any truly horrible taco moments for me. The first official taco club we did there was a rain storm though, which made me nervous. I had (maybe misguidedly) posted the taco club to a local message board, so all these people showed up, and I wasn’t expecting that. It started raining really hard, and we had to move some stuff inside. I was afraid someone would get electrocuted! And people were hanging out in my dingy basement eating tacos. It was kind of weird, but it worked out okay.
Also, our friend Christine Hertzel is a Yo La Tengo fan. I like them too. They were coming into town to play, so Christine invited them to have tacos at the taco stand. Luckily they didn’t show up, since I wound up canceling taco club because I had to finish a term paper (argh). But they dedicated a song to the PTC at their show, which is pretty neat. It would have been rad if Yo La Tengo showed up in my backyard, but also lame since there weren’t actually tacos that week.
Do you switch up the menu?
Alyson: We switched up the menu here and there. I made horchata for the first taco club, then decided it was way too much work on top of everything else, so I switched to jamaica [Ed: a kind of cold hibiscus tea]. Each tofu recipe was different, but we mostly stuck to the same core menu items.
Tara: Wish I’d had more time to explore, but just couldn’t make time. Maybe next year…it would be fun to make it more of a communal process, with guest chefs. Speaking of guest chefs—thanks are due to Hannah Reiff for working on the spicy slaw recipe with me, and to Christine and Carlee for helping out with serving tacos.
What lies in the taco future?
Alyson: We don’t have any solid future taco plans, at least for winter, when it’s way too cold to even think about walking out the door unless absolutely necessary.
Tara: Agreed. I’m working on graduating right now. Next summer I’d be into doing tacos again…or maybe homemade ice cream! I would also like to encourage more Pittsburghers to do their own “private food” clubs; it would be rad if I could walk down the street and happen upon a burrito or pie bike-up window in someone’s backyard.
What are your personal cooking philosophies/personalities?
Tara: When not in school, I like drinking beer and making slow, interpretative soups. While in school, I’m a pretty utilitarian cook (what can I make in bulk, and eat for three days?) Needless to say, I’m looking forward to many happy, relaxing soup days come December.
Alyson: I mostly like simple, delicious cooking—food that doesn’t really require a lot of active time, but requires patience and mindfulness and other things I sometimes struggle with. The process is just really satisfying, like waiting for sauerkraut to ferment to a point that tastes right to you, or working on biscuits, trying to balance flakiness and softness.
The following PTC recipe is more or less based on a Diana Kennedy recipe and Alyson’s mom’s former co-worker’s recipe:
Private Taco Club Rice
- 1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice
- 1/8 cup canola or vegetable oil
- 2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 1/2 small white onion, roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp chickenless bouillon (I usually use Better Than Bouillon brand)
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon coconut milk
- salt and pepper to taste
Pour enough very hot water over rice to completely cover it, and leave for a minute. Drain and rinse the rice.
Place a high-sided skillet or saucepan over high heat and add the oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the rice and cook for about 10 minutes, occasionally scraping the bottom and sides of the pan, until fragrant and golden.
Meanwhile, blend the tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a food processor until fairly smooth (you can leave a few chunks in for texture). Add the tomato mixture, bouillon, 1 2/3 cup water, coconut milk, salt, and pepper to the rice and bring to a boil.
Drop the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed and rice is soft, approximately 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the rice sit, covered, for ten minutes. Fluff rice and serve.