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T.S. Strickland

Overmatter

T.S. Strickland is a reporter at the Carroll County News, covering Berryville, Green Forest and countywide issues. He can be reached at ccnnews@cox-internet.com or 870-423-6636 extension 32.

"Happy Taco" and the redemptive power of eating

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

One of my most treasured discoveries since coming to Carroll County is a little Berryville restaurant called La Taqueria Navidad.

If you haven't been there, you should drop whatever plans you have made today and go. But before you do, here is a piece of advice: Don't go asking people for directions to La Taqueria Navidad.

People are more likely to know the restaurant as "Happy Taco." This is, of course, a mistranslation. However, it is more of an improvement than a mistake. The tacos do, indeed, make you feel very, very happy.

My coworkers introduced me to Happy Taco on my second day in Berryville, treating me to a lunch of carnitas.

If you are, as I was, uninitiated, "carnitas" are crispy, fatty, succulent roast pork bits. At the taqueria, they serve heaping piles of them with warm tortillas, cilantro and onions, lettuce, and their own unbelievable sauces.

Two people, maybe three, can eat their fill for less than $10.

I ate my fill, then went back for seconds, thirds and fourths -- fifths if you count the tortilla's worth of carnitas I stole from my coworkers one day in the news room.

Most recently, my our photographer David and I ordered in. As we gorged ourselves at the office table, our conversation drifted, predictably, to the subject of food.

David and I share a love for roadside greasy spoons and dusty taquerias. The food has to be good, sure, but it's the place you tell stories about.

One of my favorite foods, I told David, is curry. Thai, Indian, Japanese -- I love them all. However, it was in Japan that I first fell in love with this gravy of the gods, and it was there, I told him, that curry saved my life.

When I traveled to Japan three years ago, I was in the midst of a terrible depression. It sat like a 100-pound boulder on my heart for the whole three weeks I spent in the country.

During the trip, I stayed mostly in Tokyo, but one night, I took a bus to Osaka. It was a miserable trip. I sat in an aisle seat, next to a Japanese man. The whole night, I couldn't sleep. If I leaned one way I fell on the shoulder of my neighbor, whose face was squished against the window in blissful repose. If I leaned the other way, I fell into the aisle.

So, when the bus rolled into Osaka at 5:30 the next morning, I was not a happy man. I was alone, tired, and sad, and I couldn't check in to my hotel until 2 o'clock. With eight hours to kill, I began to walk. By late morning, I was lost -- and hungry enough to roast my neighbor from the bus trip over an open fire and eat him whole. I probably would have if he had been anywhere in sight.

I was crossing a bridge on foot, holding my heart and listening to my stomach groan, when I saw a dragon gate in the distance. "Wonderful!" I thought, "there's a Chinatown. Surely, I can find some food and entertainment there." And, so, I set off.

After about a mile's walk, I finally arrived at the gate, but when I turned the corner to enter, I was perplexed. Beyond the gate was an empty alleyway. "Why in the heck," I thought, "would someone place a dragon gate above an alley?"

Disappointed, I walked on -- more hungry, more tired, and still wretched.

And that's when I smelled it -- the unmistakable aroma of something wonderful being cooked.

My nose led me to a nearby corner storefront. The place was tiny. There was a counter, maybe five feet long, and room enough for maybe ten people to stand and bark lunch orders. A large Japanese man stood statuesquely behind the counter, stirring an enormous metal pot. He didn't seem to listen to the hungry mob. This was just as well, because they were all saying the same thing. You see, this restaurant had only one menu item, the stuff in the pot. A chalkboard on the wall read, simply, "chicken curry."

For 500 yen (about $5), I got a big, steaming plate of chicken curry and white rice and a pickled bamboo shoot. And it was the best thing I had ever tasted. It filled my stomach, but more importantly, it lifted my spirits.

Food can do that. It humanizes us, or maybe I should say it animalizes us.

I have a dear friend who is a painter. (Stay with me. I swear I have a point.)

This friend and I don't see each other often, but when we do, we talk for hours. At the end of it all, I can never pin down what it was we spoke of, yet I always feel understood. We like to chase the inexpressible with words. She always told me paint could communicate things that words could not. Even though I am a writer, I tend to agree.

Sometimes, you see, I detest words.

One day, years ago, the two of us were walking along the bay in my hometown of Pensacola. The sun was setting over the water. It was beautiful -- pink and orange and violet, but I did not feel happy. I told my friend that I felt unable to experience the beauty around me. I was so lost in my words and ideas, and I felt helpless to silence my mind.

I couldn't even look at the sunset and experience it purely. I had to try to hogtie it with words, to wrestle some sort of meaning from it. I hated myself for this.

From there, we began to talk about food - another favorite subject. You see, this friend of mine is a bon vivant. She waxes poetic over pasta and would probably take a wedge of fine cheese and a fresh loaf of bread over a piece of jewelry

I had recently had a revelation about food that I wanted to test on her. As humans, I told her, we're obsessed with language and meaning. So much so that we have forgotten how to simply live and find joy in our experience. We get lost in our mazes of ideas, terrorized by our words, until we can't even appreciate a sunset.

I think food could save us, I told her. Sight and hearing are the language senses. We use our sight constantly to read and our ears to hear speech. Our other senses have become dulled. Maybe food, which relies so heavily on taste, texture, and aroma, could reawaken them, and with them the joy of pure experience. Food might free us from the bonds of language.

I don't remember what she thought of my little theory. However, I believe there's something to it. Food is joy, pure and simple. It is also something that unites us. No matter our differences, we can all come together over a meal and rejoice to simply be alive.

I can't say for sure whether that bowl of curry really did save my life that day in Japan, I don't know where my feet would have carried me if my nose hadn't saved me. However, I do know one thing: The carnitas at La Taqueria Navidad make me very, very happy.