I chipped my tooth on a soft shell taco in Mexico.
It was my eleventh night of tacos in two weeks, and my second helping of tacos that night—something of a celebration after the Raptors had won Game 7 and Kawhi had won Toronto’s heart and the ball had bounced around on the rim for at least ten seconds after the buzzer went, or so it seemed as I watched on a corner TV in a restaurant near the Caribbean coast.
It was the fourth restaurant my friend and I had pleaded with to show the game that evening, perhaps because in my attempt at Spanish I had dumbly asked if they could please put on the basketball juice instead of the basketball game. (Such errors are, mercifully, overlooked by kind waiters.) The beer was good, which is to say it was cold and cheap, and the first round of tacos proved excellent. We ate Baja fish and shrimp tacos garnished with cabbage slaw and tartar sauce, a wedge of lime on each plate. It was wonderful. Divine, even.
The second round of tacos is where I ran into trouble.
We went to a street vendor on Tulum’s Calle Osiris Sur, down the block from Parque Dos Aguas where a late-night game of basketball unfolded in the late spring heat, and I imagined myself stepping on the court and hitting my own version of The Bounce, the ball suspended in air like a city’s collective hopes and dreams, imaginary clock hitting zero as the ball left my fingertips and went skyward.
I had a good buzz going from the first two beers, but mostly from the endless replay in my mind of a shot I’d spent twenty years of Toronto sports fandom learning to expect would never fall. Which is, of course, why I went for the second round of tacos in the first place.
We’d been to the same street vendor the night before.
It was the most popular one among the dozen-odd food stands that lined the street and served tacos for less than a buck apiece—or 10 pesos, if we’re getting specific. The prices weren’t always easy to pin down. The night before, I’d bought six tacos for 80 pesos while my friend paid 40 for four of the same. Such is the deal one strikes, I suppose, for tacos bought on a street corner where the meals are served on plates wrapped in clear plastic bags. Better not to question such things.
I went for another order of six tacos this time. Partly because of the whole Kawhi afterglow, and partly because of the way the pork sizzled in front of an open flame, and partly to see whether the price would change from the night before. (It was 60 pesos this time.) That, and I derived no small pleasure from ordering more food than the rest of my friends, if for no other reason than to prove that I could eat it all.
They were served al pastor, a style developed in Central Mexico and influenced by the Lebanese immigrants who came in the 19th and 20th centuries. The pork was spiced with chilies and sliced thin, topped with pineapple and cilantro and chopped onions. It was heavenly. The best tacos I’d ever had, when I’d eaten them the first time around. Nothing that ought to chip a tooth.
Who chips a tooth on a taco?
I’d been on a mission to find the best tacos since arriving in Mexico two weeks prior.
It started in Isla Mujeres, then spread to Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, where each night—and sometimes each morning and afternoon, depending how the mood struck—I’d track down another spot that seemed promising. The rule, as always, was to go where the locals ate, no matter if it was a noisy restaurant or a vendor selling food out of a plastic bin. Often the plastic bin tacos tasted better than the restaurant ones, anyway. At the very least, they were cheaper.
I made it through the first five tacos no problem, and even through most of the sixth, before it happened. I felt it instantly. Like something had wedged itself in between my front bottom teeth. A bit of pork, perhaps. I poked and prodded with my tongue until something came loose. And then I really noticed it. A gap. An absence. A chunk missing from the back of one of my teeth.
Maybe the front, too?
Shit. I couldn’t tell. It was dark; I needed a mirror.
I ran my tongue over it again and again, fretting over the possibility that my dating prospects had further dwindled. It wasn’t the tooth that bothered me as much as what it implied: if a soft shell taco could chip my tooth, how soft did that make me?
Baby formula soft?
What did it say about me that a flour tortilla could claim checkmate over the hardest part of my body?
I’d been questioning my travel-hardiness from the start of the trip—wondering whether I still had it in me after thirty-some countries.
Perhaps I’d burnt out. Used up all the magic. Perhaps it dwindled the last time I ran out of toilet paper in a bus station bathroom, or slept in a room with seven strangers who either snored or shagged loud enough to keep the rest of the room awake until dawn. Maybe I’d become more of the “rented car and Airbnb” type, to be replaced one day by the “hotel with a Jacuzzi” type, and later the “cruise ship with bingo and line-dancing” type. The whole progression-of-life kind of thing.
My one friend—one who would gladly sleep in a room with seven strangers, and probably seventeen, if it meant a cheap enough bed for the night—teased me about this when I tried to book a room for our first night together in Mexico. It was a week before we were to arrive in Playa del Carmen, and the reservation was just for a night.
Too soon, was the message I got.
Real travel meant showing up in a place without a reservation. It meant finding a hostel by asking the locals. It meant giving up your pillow. I thought of my last trip to Ecuador and Peru—one I’d booked over a month in advance—and felt a flush of embarrassment.
This couldn’t stand, of course.
What had happened to the guy who spent three months cycling across a country? Who braved murderous lapwings and never found an airport terminal he couldn’t sleep in?
I needed to make a change. Prove to myself that I still had it. That I wasn’t afraid.
I went back to that same taco strip the next night. Steely-eyed. Determined.
I found the first stand selling tacos.
And this time… I ordered four.