Food columnist Kellen Burden’s recent trip to Señor Taco in Federal Way led to a lip-smacking experience. Photo courtesy of Kellen Burden

Dr. Jekyll and Señor Taco | The Hand That Feeds

Growing up in Southern California, winter was just a word you put in front of “sports” and it meant you were going to have to drive somewhere. Winter was something you watched on television. Seventy degrees and Christmas trees. Frosty the beer, not the snowman. Pacific Northwest Kellen misses the naive young man he was in those days. The boy who looked out the window when it hailed. The kid for whom splashing through a puddle was cause for cheering, not swearing. Southern California Kellen.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my new home. I love its greens and its blues and its grays. I love its people and its history and its food. But, naiveté is the condition of not knowing you didn’t know something, and there are a few things Southern California Kellen never knew he had. For example, Pacific Northwest Kellen wants to tell Southern California Kellen he doesn’t know what damp is. Pacific Northwest Kellen wants to tell him turn off the Xbox and go unfurl in that honeydew sunshine while he’s got it. And more than anything, Pacific Northwest Kellen wants to tell peacoat-in-50-degree-weather, bonfires-for-marshmallows-not-warmth Kellen to sell everything he owns, march over to the taqueria down the way and put that family’s kids through college by mashing tacos into his face.

Tacos, are my “Rosebud.” Asada and lengua off a spitting grill and into a warm tortilla, fresh off the press, still steaming in the sultry heat of the kitchen. Salsas off the blade of a knife and out from beneath the pestle. Lime hissing out of a palm into the fire. I can do without the sunshine, and Washington has its beaches, but if there is one thing that keeps me awake on a wet Northwestern night it is the phantom sizzle of chargrilled meat, the slap of harina dough on a palm, the crunch of fried fish like the ghost of tacos past, reminding me of the carefree man I used to be.

But then it happened.

I don’t know how I found Señor Taco. It’s one of those places that just materialized in my life after a years’-long bender of shredded cheese and ground beef. I was out, sickly and ghoulish, trying taco joints across the Puget Sound the way a starving man at the end of his rope tests mushrooms to see if they’re poisonous.

But mouthful after disappointing mouthful of chalky tortillas and chewy meats had left me resigned to a bleak future of tater tots and sour cream.

Then I shuffled into Señor Taco and mashed a fish taco slathered in what I (wrongly) assumed to be nacho cheese sauce into my face, and something in my brain went “DING DING DING DING.” To continue the dejected forager metaphor, this mushroom wasn’t poisonous.

In fact, I’d stumbled on a truffle. Fish, breaded and fried to golden perfection, beneath a pile of tart little cabbage and onion bits.

Swaddled in a warm, hand-made tortilla and drizzled with some kind of spiced crema sauce so tart and smooth and mouthwatering that the room around me came into focus in the glow of it.

Soccer on the television, colors on the walls. Spanish in the kitchen and smiles on faces in the dining area like artificial sunshine.

I ordered tacos like a madman.

The asada was smoky. The cabesa fell apart in my mouth. The lengua had that pleasant, earthy smoothness that you can only coax out of it by knowing exactly what you’re doing.

In the technicolor warmth of that dining area, I squeezed wedges of lime into the warm embrace of those tacos on their paper plates, beads of the sweet nectar spouting across the table top while the sportscasters on the flat screens and in my heart screamed “GOAL.” To the muted sounds of Spanish and kitchen noises, I squirted salsa from a squeeze bottle in ribbons across my food. Carefully made salsas with personalities all their own. Sweet ones.

Smoky ones. Sassy ones.

I don’t envy the onlookers to the eating that I did that day. There’s no excuse for making those kinds of noises in public. Things that fall on the floor shouldn’t be picked up and eaten. Using one’s face as a vacuum is something that should be done in the privacy of one’s home. In my defense, though, transformation is never a pretty thing. Not when Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk. Not when Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde, and, apparently, not when Pacific Northwest Kellen turns into taco-in-each-hand, salsa-straight-from-the-bottle Southern California Kellen.

— Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.

Editor’s note: This column also appeared in the Federal Way Mirror’s Explore Federal Way magazine on June 23.

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