October 13, 2009


This is Bob. Bob claims to have only one tastebud. Do not invite him to dinner and serve him a pork chop and a salad.

"There is nothing more boring," he says. "I like food that bites hard. I like a salsa or a peanut sauce or something that makes my mouth say, 'Wow, why didn't I think of that?' "

Bob is a biologist, a traveler, a hobo-at-heart who rides a motorcycle instead of the rails and stops wherever there is a decent Mexican restaurant. Earlier this year he mapped out a month-long cross-country ride and set his sights on Santa Fe because he knew of a place there that made really, really good Chile Rellenos. He made his way south to the Cumberland Gap of Kentucky, across Oklahoma, and as far north as the Dakotas, all the while noticing how many mom-and-pop restaurants had closed their doors. "The food in rural America is withering on the vine—at least where I was," he says.

Bob grew up in southern California, eating Tex-Mex border food and old-school square meals prepared by his mom, who considered cooking little more than an activity to be endured. Then, in the 1980s, Bob’s first wife showed him that cooking could be fun, and he grabbed the ball and ran. There were Chinese cooking classes, wine tastings, cannoli-making ventures that involved rolling pastry around a curtain rod, and, after numerous visits south of the border, authentic Mexican food. That is pretty much where Bob settled down. "I can't imagine too many meals without cilantro," he says.

Years, and many enchiladas, passed. Bob began to cook less frequently. He taught biology to college students, tended a greenhouse full of exotic plants, built a house, fell in love with motorcycles, and gradually replaced his Bon Appetit and Gourmet subscriptions with Roadrunner and Motorcycle Consumer News. "I continue to appreciate really good food, but the cooking thrill kind of petered out of me," he says.

Still, if called upon, Bob will pull out his old aluminum comal—a Mexican griddle—and make the tomatillo salsa he ate in large quantities when he lived in Guanajuato, in central Mexico. "There is nothing subtle about salsas down there," he says. They're either smoky from chipotle peppers, or earthy from pasillas, or fresh and sharp from jalapenos or serranos. "If you've got enough hair for a habanero, then more power to you," Bob says.

Making the salsa is hardly rocket science, he says; you soften and blacken the tomatillos, onions, and peppers on the comal, or in a frying pan, and then pop them in a blender. Done. Throw in a little pineapple, Bob suggests. "You can hybridize it any way you want to."

Tomatillo Salsa
15-20 tomatillos, husks removed
1 small onion, peeled and halved crosswise
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 fresh chile pepper (Bob used a jalapeno)
1-2 tbsp. chopped cilantro
1/4-1/2 tsp. salt or to taste

Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium heat. Blacken the tomatillos, onion, garlic, and chile, turning so they soften, cook through, and char all over, about 10-15 minutes. (You could also boil the vegetables until soft, but you'd miss out on a lot of flavor.) Seed the pepper when it is cool enough to handle. Place all the veggies in a blender or a food processor and puree. If necessary, add a tablespoon or two of water to help blend. Stir in cilantro and salt to taste.

Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups

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