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It's That Taco Time of the Year!

By Mary James • Photography by Martin Mann

This year is the 150th anniversary of the military victory celebrated in Mexico on Cinco de Mayo and most of San Diego will join in the festivities with a Mexican food fiesta. If you're planning a party, spice up your table with one — or all three — of these variations on traditional tacos.

Casa de Pico

CASA DE PICO CHEF AIDA ELBERS adds the sweet tang of oranges to this traditional dish built around spicy, slow-simmered pork, a favorite at the colorful La Mesa Mexican restaurant. To enhance the flavors, braise the meat a couple of days in advance.

Fabuloso Carnitas Asadas Tacos

Serves 6-8

3 to 4 pounds pork shoulder

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 cans Coca-Cola

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 whole bay leaf

3 fresh oranges

2 fresh serrano chilies, seeded and sliced lengthwise in small strips

1 yellow onion, sliced into small strips

1 dozen corn tortillas

Fresh cilantro and lime wedges, for garnish

1. Cut the pork into four chunks. Don't trim the fat, as you will need it for the braising.

2. Heat 1/2 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan. Add the pork pieces and, cooking on high heat, sear on all sides.

3. Reduce the heat and add the Coca-Cola, salt, pepper, garlic and bay leaf. Cut the fresh oranges in half and squeeze the juice into the pan. Then add the orange halves to the pan.

4. Bring mixture to a boil and simmer for 1 to 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender and comes apart with a fork.

5. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside to cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, shred the meat using two forks.

6. Heat the remaining oil in a large sauté pan. Sauté the serrano chilies and onion until tender.

7. Add the shredded pork and sauté quickly. Keep warm.

8. Warm the tortillas and fill each with some of the pork mixture. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with a wedge of lime.

Romesco Baja Med Bistro

CHEF JAVIER PLASCENCIA'S succulent short ribs braised in red wine provide the savory shredded beef for these soft tacos served at the acclaimed Bonita restaurant. Serve the meat in a large bowl so family and friends can make their own soft tacos. Provide chopped onion and cilantro, a squeeze of lemon juice and fresh salsa for topping if desired.

Short-Rib Tacos

Serves 6-8

4-5 pounds bone-in beef short ribs

1 fresh sprig of rosemary

1 fresh sprig of thyme

2/3 cup red wine

1/2 white onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

8 cups water (approximate)

Salt and pepper

4 cups red wine

1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 fresh sprig of rosemary

1 fresh sprig of thyme

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

Dash Worcestershire sauce (optional)

1 tablespoon cornstarch

8-10 corn tortillas, heated in a hot pan or on a grill

1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.

2. Place the short ribs in an oven-safe roasting pan large enough to hold them in one layer. Add the herbs, wine, onion and garlic. Add water to cover meat and fill the roasting pan.

3. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Place in preheated oven and cook for 4 to 5 hours until beef is tender and easy to remove from the bone.

4. Remove the ribs from the pan. Remove the bones and any excess fat. Shred the beef and set aside. (Can be prepared in advance and reheated before serving.)

5. Combine the wine, pepper and herbs in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until the liquid is reduced in half. Strain and return to the saucepan.

6. Skim excess fat from the short rib cooking liquid and add it to the reduced wine. Bring to a boil. While boiling add the red wine vinegar and sugar. Taste and correct seasoning, adding a dash of Worchester sauce if desired.

7. Prepare a slurry with water and the cornstarch. Add to the gravy and bring to a boil to thicken. Add additional cornstarch until gravy is the desired thickness. Stir in the shredded short rib meat and keep warm.

8. Heat the corn tortillas in a hot pan or on a grill.

9. To serve, fill the warm tortillas with the meat-gravy mixture.

The Brigantine

WHEN THE BRIGANTINE FAMILY of restaurants decided to change one of its tuna appetizers, corporate chef Steve Floyd devised this modern mini-taco with Asian accents. Easily shared, these spicy bites are a healthy, simple-to-make alternative to traditional tacos.

Ahi Poke Wonton Tacos

Serves 6-8

Oil for frying

18-24 round pot-sticker wonton wrappers (fried like a taco shell)

1 pound sashimi grade Ahi tuna, finely diced

1/4 pound of tomatoes, cored and finely diced

4 tablespoons yellow onion, finely diced

1 tablespoon Sriracha or other hot sauce

1/4 cup soy ginger dressing (recipe follows)

1 teaspoon Asian slaw (recipe follows)

Wasabi Crema (recipe follows) and black sesame seeds for garnish

1. Heat oil in a small frying pan. Fry the pot sticker wonton wrappers folding them like a taco shell. When crisp, set on paper towels to drain.

2. Combine the tuna, tomatoes, onion and hot sauce in a bowl. Add ? cup of the soy-ginger dressing and mix well.

3. To assemble the tacos, place a scant teaspoon of the Asian slaw in each wanton shell. Top with some of the tuna mixture.

4. Garnish with Wasabi Crema and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds and serve.

Soy-Ginger Dressing

Makes 2 cups

4 tablespoons fresh ginger,

peeled and roughly chopped

2 teaspoons dried mustard

3 tablespoons powdered sugar

3/4 cup salad oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup sesame oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce (available in supermarket Asian food sections)

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and blend until thick and creamy. Strain through a fine strainer. Set aside. (Can be made in advance and chilled until used.)

Asian Slaw

1/2 head green cabbage, cored and sliced very thin

1 bunch cilantro, cleaned and minced

1 small carrot, peeled and grated

1/2 red bell pepper, finely diced

1/4 cup soy-ginger dressing (recipe above)

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine. Toss with 1/4 cup soy-ginger dressing. Set aside.

Wasabi Crema

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon prepared wasabi

1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Chill until assembling the tacos.

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