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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Basil is NOT Cilantro

One of the nice things about hating cilantro so much is that it serves as a convenient benchmark for dubious or relative hatred of other things. Do I hate midtown? Yes. Do I hate it as much as cilantro? No, not even close. But, when the two come together, a funny things happens: somehow, neither seems as bad. You can feel the universe working in some sort of sick harmony, if only for a frenzied 20-minute at my desk lunch.

When my new (and dear, vegan) coworker suggests taco salad as a reasonable midtown lunch choice, I don't have to think twice. Hale and hardy as early winter midtown soups may be, they get a little old. The taco salad offers a cornucopia of foodie wonderland ingredients: farm-to-table (farm's in California, but I hear sustainability is going out of style) iceberg lettuce, canned supermarket black beans, anemic diced tomatoes, hormone and/or antibiotic treated sour cream, flavorless but high-fat pre-shredded "cheddar" and "jack" cheeses, overly acidiulated "guacamole," and then there's that beautiful brown slice of Tex-mexamericana, the fried taco salad shell. Well, obviously I couldn't say no. Hell, it's Thursday.

What's more, as new coworker described said taco salad and it's "delicious" "tomato and basil" component, I was intrigued. This is where I made my fatal error, which I only realized too late. No self-respecting vendor of authentic Tex-Mex midtown cuisine would bastardize the genre's standards so much as to put basil in a taco salad -- this isn't Little Italy and it's not Thai either (a cuisine that interestingly holds my greatest friend and greatest foe herbs in equal esteem). But, I didn't second guess.

I walked into the "Bagel" shop on 48th street with authority, heading straight to the Tex-Mex section (south of salad bar/bagel/panini/, east of sushi and make your own udon) like I'd been doing it for years. "Taco Salad, black beans" was all I had to say. The guy knew what to do, like he'd been doing it for years. It's when he started spooning on the tomato/basil concoction that it occurred to me, "You know Erin, that probably isn't basil in there. Your sweet but innocent coworker meant miscellaneous herb when she said basil, not basil as you understand it." But, I figured, any opportunity to keep trying the stuff -- who knows when the magic day I quit hating it will be. Plus, this didn't exactly promise to be the best meal I'd ever had in my life, although it would, of course, come close.

Well, as I eat my taco salad, yes, right now, the cilantro really isn't too noticeable. It's more a sporadic annoyance between inoffensive if underwhelming bites. I can see a tiny piece sitting on a tomato dice right now. Ok, that tomato piece has been discarded, that's one that won't sneaking onto my palate of hate.

The total effect of the dish is actually to fit perfectly in its time and place, which is all you can really ever ask for any dish, ever. In that sense, it's the perfect midtown lunch. A basically neutral, but protein rich, combination of textures and flavors that don't distract or get in the way of the busy workday. The slight annoyance and, in this case, depth of flavor the cilantro provides, reminds me of where I am, the most annoying and crowded area of Manhattan. It's only fitting that my lunches here should contain errant or apropos cilantro (cilantro is never apropos to me, but it is to various cuisines, like Tex-Mex, maybe my new favorite) in sparse but consistent quantities and manifestations.

Today's lesson: Cilantro isn't basil. Basil does not go in taco salad. When you hear "basil" and "taco" in the same sentence -- buyer beware.

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