Tortas in Tuscaloosa: Memory after a storm

TORTAS IN TUSCALOOSA

Memory after a storm

by Caleb Johnson (Gravy, Spring 2017)

Change comes in many forms. During the spring in Alabama it sometimes comes from the horizon, a funnel-shaped cloud descended from the gray-slabbed sky. So it happened on April 27, 2011, when an EF-4 tornado approached Tuscaloosa from the south and west.

You can lose yourself in the numbers from that day. The storm lasted more than seven hours, traveled almost 400 miles. The tornado, which killed 52 people in Tuscaloosa alone, grew to be a mile and half wide. Winds at 190 miles-per-hour destroyed 12 percent of the city, including much of the neighborhood where my favorite Mexican restaurant, Taquería Jaripeo, used to be.

Meet author Caleb Johnson.

On a Saturday morning last November, while visiting from my new home in Philadelphia, my buddy Nate and I pulled over next to the vacant lot where Taquería Jaripeo once stood. It was the first time I’d visited the spot since moving out of state the summer after the tornado hit. Nate and I ate warm, glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts while arguing whether the taquería had been on the left or right end of the mini-mall. All that remained was a portion of the cinderblock wall, the foundation, and parking-lot scabs grown over with yellowed grass. In the wake of the tornado, much of Alberta City (a northeastern suburb of Tuscaloosa) looked this way—as if an enormous hand had slapped the earth.

While I may not remember the exact spot where the restaurant was located, I do, without a doubt, remember Taquería Jaripeo’s chorizo torta. The roll was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. It could barely hold the avocado, onion, carrot, jalapeno, and sour cream. The chorizo inside was cooked until it resembled rust. Each time you took a bite, the innards dripped all over the plate, and if you weren’t careful, onto your lap.

Header and above: Taquería Jaripeo in 2010.

In my early twenties, when I first set foot in Taquería Jaripeo, I’d never eaten a sandwich like that. Nor had I ever been to a Mexican restaurant in Alabama that didn’t specialize in gluey white cheese dip, deep-fried chimichangas, and fajitas served on a sizzling cast iron plate. In addition to tortas, Taquería Jaripeo offered an exhaustive selection of tacos. I tried lengua and al pastor for the first time there. They served tacos on corn tortillas and dressed them with fresh cilantro and chopped onion. At Taquería Jaripeo you could wash down your meal with aguas frescas or a Mexican Coca-Cola in a glass bottle that a waitress brought from a cooler in the corner of the rectangular dining room where pictures of Jesus, and other religious icons, hung on the wall. Taquería Jaripeo was a family business. Two women—the mother and grandmother, I always guessed—worked the kitchen. The father, I figured this man to be, and two or three silent men, often sat eating a tomato-based beef soup at a table near two large windows. These windows faced north across University Boulevard toward Alberta Baptist Church, which had a giant blue and green fiberglass globe atop its sign. That globe is gone now too, though a renovated brick church remains.

I tried lengua and al pastor for the first time at Taquería Jaripeo.

Listen to Gravy Ep. 44, “The Leftovers In A Coal Miner’s Lunchbox,” produced by the author.

For months after the tornado, folks gathered every night at their favorite bars. Mine was Egan’s, a smoky little room where, after several drinks, you could acquire the ability to dance like James Brown. One night that summer, two friends introduced me to a young man who I’d never seen in the bar before. A band was playing, though I don’t remember which one. All anybody talked about those days was the tornado. Everybody had a story to tell. Of seeing treetops punch holes through roofs, of picking their way down streets snaked with live wires. The young man began shouting his story to us over the music.

His family used to own a Mexican restaurant in town, he said. Now they sold lunches to the countless cleanup and construction crews. My friends smiled while I pieced things together. Maybe it was the drinks, but meeting this young man felt like more than coincidence. In that moment, it seemed divined. By this time I was already set to move out of state. Everything seemed heightened, everything a potential last or never again. Here I’d been given a chance to tell this young man how much his family’s food meant to me—something I’d failed to do any of the times I dined at Taquería Jaripeo.

I’m sure my words fell short, but the young man appeared happy and proud to hear how his family’s restaurant had changed the way I thought about Mexican food. My friends and I bought him whiskey shots and asked when the restaurant would reopen. A foolish question, I now realize. Change had come. Its fulfillment would be the development of high-rise condominiums, chain stores, and restaurants near the University of Alabama campus, not the return of small, family-owned businesses in a neglected, largely Latino neighborhood a couple miles away.

Taquería Jaripeo’s torta menu.

The young man appeared happy and proud to hear how his family’s restaurant had changed the way I thought about Mexican food.

The young man left sometime before the band finished that night, and I never saw him again. It’s possible that he, like many Latinos who lost their homes in the tornado, left the state altogether. I remember that night now, and many others from this period in my life, like a burn. I wish I could remember the young man’s name.

Read Gravy’sLa Fonda: Comida auténtica in Fort Payne, Alabama,” by Abigail Greenbaum.

As Nate and I pulled away from the vacant lot last November, I was glad to have reconnected with my past. Since moving away from the state where I was born and raised, returning to my past has become something of a fetish, though returning usually leaves me feeling worse than the missing does. As Nate and I crossed some railroad tracks, I thought about the first time I went to Taquería Jaripeo. It was summer and I brought a friend, which I tried to do every time after for the selfish reason that I wanted the restaurant to stay open so I could keep eating there. My friend and I were hungover from a night of drinking and dancing at Egan’s. I don’t remember what she ordered that day. What I do remember is holding my chorizo torta out for her to taste, how the sandwich spilled itself onto the table when she took a bite.

After lunch we bought canned beers at a gas station then went to swim in a pool at an apartment complex where neither of us lived. We were alone. We drank those beers while standing chest-deep in the piss-warm water. Later, the sky opened up and dumped rain on our heads. We didn’t care or dare get out. This was not a storm, but a shower, and we were happily full on Mexican food and beer.

Caleb Johnson teaches middle school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and has contributed to the Gravy podcast. His debut novel will be published by Picador in 2018.

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