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Jul 10, 2001 01:34 PM

Overcoming fear of shacks

  • b

I have a problem with food shacks. I love them and fear them. I'm talking about the places which serve usually regional foods out of a poorly constructed and usually unhygenic building on the side of the road.

In maryland, I grew up eating at crab shacks, the occasional pit beef stand, and egg custard snowballs from various snowball stands. I loved it.

Now I live in North Carolina, and have found several intriguing new types of shacks. Catfish, mexican, and barbecue mostly. I have no problem with the barbecue and catfish places, but the mexican I find intimidating. I can smell how good the food is but don't know the first thing about ordering.

Anyone have any suggestions/similar experiences?


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  1. b
    Brandon Nelson

    Hey Ben

    Mexican? In North Carolina? One of my rules for good Mexican had been the presense of Spanish speaking radio in the background. I'm a West Coast boy, and I believe the further one gets from Mexico the less enthusiam there is for the cuisine. Places that make their own frijoles and tortillas are usually the best places to grub on Mexican chow. The presense of lard in the kitchen is another good sign they know their chops. There are three basic meat prepartions I look for in a taqeria (taco shop); Carne Asada- grilled marinated beef, Carnitas- shredded slow roasted pork (usually shoulder), and Al Pastor-pork cooked in a chili based "bbq sauce". I would expect to see at least 2 of these offered anywhere I eat mexican. Try these first. A spanish section of menu is another good sign. This is an indicator that the place does a profound amount of business with customers who speak and read spanish. Lengua- beef tongue, cabeza-beef cheek, tripa- tripe, cesos- brain, and buche- stomach are some common examples. I love lengua and cabeza. Properly preparred they are rich, tender, and very satisfying. I don't like the texture of tripe, too toothy. I claim to be a fearless chowhound, but I avoid the brains. Not because of the "yuck" factor, but because neural tissue can carry disease that other tissue doesn't.

    I would have little problem with diving into the barbeque shacks. The Carolinas are a region that lay claim to great bbq. It has roots in the soul food culture . You are in an area that will produce, I'm sure, some real gems.

    Catfish is also regionally apropriate. Again, the soul food connection. The best thing to do would be to find out when they get their fish. That way you are assured sparkling fresh fish with your hush puppies and cole slaw.

    Don't fear the shacks! Some of the worlds tastiest food comes out of very humble establishments. Enjoy the adventure, and share your findings!


    14 Replies
    1. re: Brandon Nelson

      Give North Carolina a chance on authentic Mexican. North Carolina actually has a healthy Latino population, especially in eastern NC, where the agricultural business supports a large migrant community.

      Blue skies,

      1. re: Catherine

        Catherine's right on about the communities of native Mexican workers around the country these days. I know that North Carolina is a major draw for Mexicans looking for construction jobs as well. My "shacks" are the caterers' trucks at commercial construction sites. They're close to my downtown office and delicious!

        I'm having trouble with some Brandon's dictionary, so let me translate to what you get in Texas and nearby northern Mexico, where it differs from Brandon's:

        Carnitas are small cubes of deep fried pork.
        Al Pastor means grilled.
        We use a different word for barbacoa beef cheeks (cabeza means the whole head), but I can't dig it out of my brain (sorry, cesos) right now.

        One thing you might try is ordering in english or pointing to what you want. Can't say I'd eat uncooked fish or shellfish from a shack, but I've eaten plenty of other things and always come out healthy and happy.

        1. re: Greg Spence
          Brandon Nelson


          We may be looking at some regional differences here. Al pastor, loosely translated, is country style. Pork prepared this way is marinated in a sauce of chili's and garlic. Asada is grilled. An asador is a grill man. I've never had carnitas from the deep fryer.
          I guess we are seeing an example of how cuisine continues to evolve and can be vastly different in regions that assimilates into.


          1. re: Brandon Nelson

            The spanish word "Pastor" can refer to a priest or of course, a shepherd. In Norteno, "cabrito al pastor" would loosely translate to "kid goat in the style of the shepherd," or in this case, roasted over an open fire. The word "asada" generally means broiled (not necessarily over a wood fire), while "parrilla" means a wood fired grill and "parrillada" refers to a platter of mixed grilled meats. This may include, cabrito, beef ribs, sweetbreads, beef tender, chicken and rarely, shrimp.


            1. re: Greg Spence

              here in chicago- al pastor usually come from marinated pork (off a revolving spit gyro style) fried with spices and then serve on tortillas.

              from the links below it seems that this way is also followed in Mexico city. (though here without the pinapple slice on top)


              1. re: zim

                this is a really interesting discussion and I hope you guys keep it spinning...
                I was really scratching my head the other day over what shepherds would have to do with pig meat...though I guess in Italian there is the similar "al caccitore"

                1. re: jen kalb

                  I think in one of those links i gave (i don't remember now) it referred to cabrito al pastor - which is goat cooked the same way and would explain the shepherd thing

                  1. re: zim

                    Sorry, I should have been more careful with my translations to begin with. Clearly, it's time to go to Nuevo Laredo.

                    1. re: Greg Spence
                      Brandon Nelson

                      Hey Greg

                      The way "al pastor" was explained to me was the root was actually pasture (the sheppard works well eh?). The history of the dish was similar to the history of Chili. The point of the heavy seasoning was to preserve the meat somewhat, and disguise the flavor of anything that was past it's prime (pre-refrigeration)


                      1. re: Brandon Nelson

                        In the central square of Morelia (Capital of the State of Michoacan, Mexico)there is a stand serving burritos "Estillo Chicago" -- burritos in the "style of Chicago".

                        1. re: John Z

                          That's fantastic! What did the estillo chicago consist of?

                          1. re: Seth

                            Hot dogs? Couldn't resist.

      2. re: Brandon Nelson

        Brandon writes "I'm a West Coast boy, and I believe the further one gets from Mexico the less enthusiam there is for the cuisine."

        With respect, I think your theory needs a little tweaking. I'm in Chicago and I feel we have some of the best Mexican food in the nation. I've eaten Mexican in just about all the states and other than California, I've been unimpressed. Give us a visit sometime and discover this for yourself.

        1. re: bryan
          Brandon Nelson

          I should clarify...

          I believe that the demand for Mexican food is greatest in Texas , California, and Arizona. By no means do I want to imply that good Mexican food exists nowhere else. I'm sure it does

          The Western states simply benefit from being closer to the border, and having greater latino populations. The numbers are in our favor. I'm sure however that there are treasures to be found everywhere.


      3. Hang out,and watch and listen to what other peole are ordering [and pick up on the language.]If it looks and smells good,order some too!what's the worst thing that could happen...indigestion?