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Underground SWLR

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I wake up early on this crisp, chilly autumn Sunday morning, my head still aching from the one-too-many beers I drank last night around that bonfire at my trailer park on Stanton Road, where a bunch of my neighbors and I talked shop, exchanged anecdotes, told dirty jokes and belly-laughed copiously way into the wee hours of the morning. As I leave my trailer and start wobbling to Baseline Road, here comes wafting through the nippy air, quickly permeating all my olfactory senses, all the smells associated with menudo, spicy beef tripe soup: first, the somewhat exotic fragrance of oregano, then, the clean, bright aroma of freshly cut lemons, as well as the heady, sharp whiff of chopped onions, and the faintly pungent, dusty odor of dried and crushed ancho chilis. "Aha!" I say to myself, that's where I got to go, to wherever it is they're serving that menudo. So I just follow my nose down Stanton, walking south until I come to the trailer park nearest to Baseline. Once there, I quickly spot some idling cars outside the third trailer from the street, and then see a man coming out of the trailer with a five-gallon stainless steel pot. He carefully puts down the pot on the floor of the back seat of his sedan, gets into his car and leaves. That easily, I have found the cure to my hangover. Now it's just a matter of fumbling through my pockets in search of three, four or five loose dollar bills while I continue to approach on foot the menudo-selling trailer.

Half hour later, I'm walking north on Stanton, back to my trailer, with a full belly, a twinkle in my eye, a smile on my face, a happy heart, and whistling a cheerful song. "Ah," I think to myself satisfied, "to be Mexican and be lucky enough to find a place to eat some good menudo on a Sunday morning. What more can one ask? Undoubtedly, life is very, very good, indeed ... Or to paraphrase Garrett Morris' saying on 'Saturday Night Live,' 'Menudo binn berrri, berrri good to me.' "

In the heart of Southwest Little Rock, the selling of menudo is truly pervasive, since on a Sunday morning you can get it on almost any block, regardless of the direction on the compass you choose to go in. That's true for more than menudo — you can get all kinds of food and services from someone's home. It is much like Mexico and Central America, where you will find that in every barrio, in every urban, suburban or rural setting, everyone who lives there knows the home where you can buy the best homemade boiled pinto beans every day, the house where you can have your hair cut and styled, the house down the block where the huesero or sobandero (bone-man or rubdown man) will help fix your stiff muscles and dislocated joints; where you can get the best homemade tamales, the best made-from-scratch tacos. And so it is in Southwest Little Rock, where, alongside the formal economy, you have a sizeable — but hidden — informal economy where Hispanics purchase various prepared food items from their neighbors, and/or pay for a variety of services provided by informal "professionals."

These "professionals" include everyone from hairstylists and barbers to mecánicos de arbolito (shade-tree mechanics) to carpenters, electricians and various other construction-industry-related specialists. There are hueseros, curanderos (healers) and brujos (shamans or witchdoctors) for a wide variety of physical, mental and spiritual ills. (Some brujos, besides being able to cast out whatever demons are supposedly causing you trouble or bad luck, can also — for a small additional fee — cast spells upon individuals you consider your "enemies," so that they, instead of you, will be harassed by demons and plagued by bad luck.) And even tarot card readers, gypsy-style palm readers and crystal-ball fortune tellers in case you're someone who just needs a lot of reassurance about how bright your future will be and how exciting your love life is about to turn.

This hidden economy pervades all of those sections of Southwest Little Rock where you have more than, say, 20 Hispanics residing. But it is particularly profuse in what is considered the heart of the so-called Mexican barrio, which is roughly located in and around the intersection of Baseline Road and Geyer Springs Road, in an area that is delimited by that stretch of Baseline Road bordered by Chicot Road to the west, and Scott Hamilton Drive to the east, and on the stretch of 65th Street bounded by those same cross streets. Those sections of Baseline and 65th, as well as Geyer Springs, Doyle Springs and Scott Hamilton, have a good number of trailer parks scattered along them, and they are populated mostly by Hispanics. These trailer parks are where you'll find the most abundant collections of these "entrepreneurial artisans." And because of where these trailer parks are located, and the way they are set up in relation to the street, you can slowly pass right in front of them and never in a million years would you guess, or even get the tiniest visual hint, of all the entrepreneurial activities and commercial transactions going on inside.

On Doyle Springs Road, near the intersection with Baseline, there is a trailer park famous for having among its inhabitants the best huesero or sobandero around. Don't get me wrong, there are other hueseros in Southwest Little Rock, but none as highly regarded as the "Doyle Springs Huesero," as he is popularly known. This is one of those "professions," trades or crafts that go way, way back, to pre-Columbian times, since it is well-documented that the Aztecs and many other indigenous Mexican tribes knew about bone-setting, putting back into place dislodged bones, and "rubbing away" and healing lower-back pain, muscular and joint injuries such as twisted ankles, dislocated vertebrae, twisted necks and sore shoulders, arms and legs. In the case of the Doyle Springs huesero, he is a fifth-generation bone-man, since before him, his great-great grandfather, his great-grandfather, his grandfather and his father were all bone-men.

"I inherited my trade, and it's just something that from the time you're a child, you just grow up with. I am proficient in both 'dry' and 'wet' (i.e, with rubbing oils) rubdowns, and the decision of doing one or the other really depends on the type of injury you're dealing with, since strained muscles or 'knotted-up' nerves will almost always respond better to wet rubdowns, where as torn muscles, contusions, sprained ankles, wrists, ligaments or tendons, or displaced bones, often do better with a 'dry' rubdown."

The Doyle Springs bone-man and his dad have on occasion been called to perform a "rubdown, or muscular healing, or bone adjustment" session to places such as Houston. He charges $30 per session, but he says almost always, "except in the very, very severest of cases, the patient will only need one session." Considering the fact approximately 50 percent of all the Hispanic adult males living in Southwest Little Rock are employed in some type of manual-labor capacity, and that at least half of these jobs are in the construction industry, there is just no shortage of customers for the Doyle Springs huesero, since in most cases, for these individuals every workday missed from injury is a day's salary lost. These men need to get back to work as soon as possible in order to be able to continue providing for their families, and so, in the interest of saving time and money, the services of a huesero are preferred over a doctor, chiropractor or orthopedist.

The prepared food vendors cannot stay in business for any length of time if they do not quickly gain the approval of their consumers. In fact, in all cases, these food vendors rely almost exclusively on word-of-mouth recommendations from their customers in order to expand their clientele.

In every one of the following summaries, the factors or contributing "vectors" that have made these entrepreneurial ventures a success are: quality, authenticity or taste, convenience and price.

Every day, right before sunset, Julio starts cleaning and preparing the vertical spit where he cooks pork for his tacos al pastor (shepherd-style tacos). He carefully places thin, circular cuts of raw pork loin and pork leg on top of each other until the thin cuts reach a height of about two feet. The spit is turned slowly in front of a brazier or hearth placed to the side, right next to it. His fonda (small restaurant, usually fronting, connected to, or inside a private residence) is on Geyer Springs, just south of Baseline Road. His tacos al pastor are reputed to be the best in all of Southwest Little Rock. They sell for $1.25 per taco. By the way, his green sauce, made with guacamole and serrano hot peppers, is just incredible. I had never tasted any hot sauce in which avocado, cilantro and fiery serrano spiciness came together and blended so mouthwateringly well. If you try it even once, you'll undoubtedly come back for more.

At just about the same time that Julio is setting up, so is "la señora de los tacos de la Stanton," which is how most of her customers refer to her, and how she herself prefers to be known. Her specialties are the tacos de carnitas (small pieces of braised pork), tacos de carne asada (broiled or grilled steak tacos), and tacos de longaniza (spicy pork sausage, virtually equivalent with chorizo). She also serves tacos campechanos ("combination" tacos; for example, a taco with asada and longaniza), along with the tostadas de cueritos (diced pieces of pickled beef feet, served on top of a flat, crispy corn tortilla). The tacos are served with sides of chiles toreados (roasted jalapeño peppers), grilled onions, lemon slices, cucumber slices and radish. The tostadas, along with the pickled pork feet rinds, are topped with lettuce, sour cream, grated cheese, beans and salsa. The owners say that some months back, to their great surprise, they found out that whenever they come to Little Rock, "some people from as far away as Rogers and Springdale go the whole day without eating and wait until sundown just so they can go eat at our place. So do plenty of people from Bryant, Benton, Alexander and Hot Springs. At least that's what they have told us. This surprised us, since we had always thought that all of our customers came from around the neighborhood. Never did we imagine that people from other cities were coming."

When it comes to tamales, there are quite a few households around Southwest Little Rock that make them as good, big and tasty as mi abuelita (my grandma) used to. And one señora who lives on Baseline goes even further: She makes these humongous, incredibly tasty and wholesome tamales, each one measuring about 10 inches long and about 3 and a half inches wide. You just can't get these extra-big, extra-tasty, totally-made-from-scratch super-tamales at any store or restaurant. Of course, a dozen of these big boys costs $20, but they're well worth it, since you can't eat more than two — or at the most three — in one sitting.

But although not as big, when it comes to sheer variety and tastiness, no one can match doña Delfina, who makes delicious homemade tamales of many types: the traditional pork tamales, along with chicken tamales, sweet tamales (pineapple, strawberry, cinnamon-sugar, etc.) hot-pepper-slices-and-cheese tamales, beans and cheese tamales — you just name it, and she'll make 'em for you.

At another trailer park on Baseline is where you'll find the best pozole de puerco (spicy pork soup) in Southwest LR. The ingredients are pork, hominy (optional), red chile sauce, onions, garlic, thyme, bay leaves and salt. And pork pozole's main ingredient is either the meat on a pig's head, or the meat found on pork backbone. Once fully cooked, a pork pozole plate is very similar in appearance to menudo, except it is much tastier. Along with menudo, pork pozole is widely regarded in Mexican culture to be an excellent cure for a hangover. And while doña Lucy does not vouch for the effectiveness of said cure, she does guarantee that both her pozole and her menudo will help you "sweat out" your hangover, and that, in the end, "that is perhaps all a person really needs in order to feel a little better after a night of excessive imbibing." Doña Lucy serves her delicious pork pozole on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and menudo on Saturdays and Sundays, starting at about 9 a.m. But you must get there before noon, because usually by 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m., it's all gone. But not to worry, since there are other dishes expertly prepared on a daily basis by doña Lucy, from about 10 a.m. to about 6 p.m.: quesadillas, enchiladas, guisado de chicharrón (pork rind stew), as well as guisados of tinga (pulled pork or chicken stew), and chorizo (Mexican spicy sausage), all served with sides of rice and beans, as well as eggs cooked in any style (including her scrumptious huevos rancheros and her lip-smacking huevos revueltos con chorizo (scrambled eggs and sausage) and, of course, all these dishes can also be served in salsa roja (red sauce) or salsa verde (green sauce).

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