Not So Starving Artists: Katie Boyts on Taqueria El Sabor Del Parque

Taqueria El Sabor Del Parque translates to ‘flavor of the park.’ The name is a gesture to its stone’s-throw proximity to Patterson Park, which sits catty-corner from this small Mexican restaurant on the corner of Eastern and Linwood.

When I first moved to Baltimore in 2013, the city’s vibrant murals immediately caught my attention. Station North alone is chock full of so many colorful, bold, contemporary images that it puts most other cities’ mural situations to crying shame. This tradition is elegantly continued by the bright, vivid, and detailed wall painting in Taqueria El Sabor.

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Inside the restaurant, the Virgin of Guadalupe hovers above a small mountain made of rocks, and, from its center, a small child and an array of colorful flowers sprout. Flanking the virgin is the Mexican flag on her right, the American flag on her left. Below her, a Mexican man kneels down by some cacti, seemingly in awe and worship. The images move out from there with mountains on the right, presumably in Mexico and familiar Baltimorean skyscrapers to the left. The metaphor of two cultures converging with the Virgin in the center is worthy of discussion… Perhaps, over umm… tacos.

In the open kitchen, two Latina cooks hustled back and forth, creating the sizzling sound of meat hitting a hot griddle and wafts of spicy aromas. I walked past and saw them prepping an order of guacamole and immediately added that to our order. I watched a beautifully white and icy horchata exit the kitchen in the hands of one guest and almost added that as well.

My group was a headcount of three, and we ordered a lot of food for three, arguably too much. But the allure of so many varieties of tacos on the menu, along with the happenings in that small kitchen, coaxed me in and I wanted to try it all. The list of tacos on the back page of the menu is extensive – Tongue/lengua, pork leg, pork head, pork lips, pork belly, tripe, pork cheek, pork ear. Not to mention the other types of meat available – lamb, beef, shrimp, fish, as well as vegetarian options such as cactus.

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It has become an artisanal thing to use and eat all parts of the animal. Clever taglines have been created to strengthen the marketing aspect of these all-encompassing cooking methods – namely “tail to snout.” No doubt taken from the “farm to table” tagline whose iterations seem agonizingly endless. Let me be clear that my exasperation regarding overused foodie phrases has nothing to do with the particular concept itself. Certainly, I’m an advocate of resourcefully using all parts of the animal in our cooking. However, the lack of marketing ploys or witty spins in Taqueria El Sabor’s menu is refreshing. Face value should never be taken for granted.

We ordered an array of tacos, some classic, some more adventurous – the macisa (pork leg), cabeza (head), lengua (tongue), barbacoa (lamb), chorizo (sausage), pastor (spicy pork), and carne asada (grilled steak). And because I couldn’t resist the temptation to combine the two themes of this column, we also ordered the Torta Taqueria Enchilada (Sandwich with spiced pork).

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Given the name, “Flavor of the Park,” it seemed fitting to turn the meal into a picnic. So we ordered our feast to go and made the short walk across the street to Patterson Park. Having forgotten the traditional picnic blanket, we posted up on a park bench, splaying out the tacos like that park bench was the luckiest of banquet tables.

I’ll grant you that tacos seem like an odd picnic food. If we step into the Norman Rockwell painting of a picnic, we’d have egg salad or ham and cheddar with a spread of fresh butter in a lovely basket and I’d be wearing an oddly uncomfortable floral print sundress. This was not that. We stood around the park bench, passing tacos and that beautiful gigantic sandwich back and forth, pausing only to take sips of coffee and scoops of guacamole in between. The anticipation had made the meal seem suddenly urgent. The dog buzzed around at our feet, and we talked at a near turbulent pace about each taco.

The pastor had a complex sweetness. The carne asada was tender. The head meat was deliciously greasy. The lengua was perfect for him, slightly too musty for me. The guacamole was exquisite, not asking for another pinch of salt or squeeze of lime. It had received everything it needed in exact proportions.

And that sandwich. That sandwich may have just defined my new Sunday ritual. The bread is laid out on the griddle so it’s buttery and soft and just a little bit warm. We said “Yes” to the question of “Do you want everything on it?” Which translates to: sliced avocado, tomatoes, cheese, lettuce, pickled jalapenos, and fresh onions. I was almost sad at how big it was because I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it, and I really really wanted to be able to finish it.

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Of the red and green salsa offerings, I liked the green salsa best. It gave a splash of brightness to the rich tacos. Don’t ignore the cucumber and radish that are provided with each taco. They give a textural contrast to the soft warm tortilla and melt-in-your-mouth meat.

Most often with meals, there are spots that miss the mark by a mere inch, redeeming itself with one stand-out dish or feature. You forgive the chewy meat because the chips were perfection. You steer clear of the fish, but keep coming back for the chicken. You love the ambiance despite the overpriced drinks. This is absolutely not the case with Taqueria EL Sabor Del Parque. Pretty much everything, even the humble coffee with powdered creamer, hit the mark with precision.

There’s a certain earnestness here, a near intensity not to be confused with chaos. It’s a sense that what is going on in the kitchen is a true practice, a sincere commitment to continuously make good food every day. I find the practice is tangible in the flavor of that kind of food. And it’s my favorite flavor. It’s more complex – the spices more nuanced, the texture smoother. The details have all been attended to. Visual artists will speak to the intentionality of every piece they make, that no choice or brushstroke was an accident or happenstance. It’s the same in good kitchens. Nothing is fluff. The cucumber and radish are perfect examples. What may seem like mere filler accents to brighten a plate actually act as an essential element once you place them inside.

Not to mention the total came to about $13 per person, which is a ridiculously reasonable price to pay for a Sunday ritual. As the weather starts to turn cool, and the idea of picnic becomes less and less alluring, you’ll still find me at Taqueria El Sabor Del Parque, and it’s not just because of that fascinating mural. It’s because of, well, everything.

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Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings

*All photos by Katie Boyts

Taqueria El Sabor Del Parque is located at 2901 Eastern Ave, Baltimore, MD 21224