Young love. Forbidden romance. Avocado. Scandal! Oh to feel the burn of loving someone you shouldn’t, you mustn’t, you can’t.
My freshman year of college wasn’t….well…wasn’t exactly normal or cheery. For whatever reason, I was deeply loathed by most of my classmates. I had found a chinless guy to date who was rumored to have cheated on me with an equally chinless girl (I look like Leno compared to these people). My roommate despised me and when she wasn’t having loud and inconveniently timed physical relations with her out of state boyfriend, she was scattering my desk with rubbish and yelling at me for not dusting her blinds.
I could, and often did, retreat from the nastiness with walks to the lake or mornings in church. I’d find secret hidey-holes on campus where no one could harass me or I would push my earphones in as deeply as they’d go, nearly puncturing my brain, and just walk through it.
The last was my approach to lunch in the cafeteria. I’d grit my teeth and bear it – not looking at anyone, not listening to anyone, ordering my taco salad, scarfing at top speed and exiting promptly. If the salad wasn’t so delicious, I’d probably have avoided the dining hall altogether.
One day, while mumbling my order with my eyes on my feet, something caught my attention. The guy behind the glass was waving his hands and yelling something I couldn’t make out over my somber soundtrack. I tentatively removed the headphones to better hear him.
“Hola! Amiga! Como estas??”
“Amiga, amiga! Quieres mas avocado?”
His name was Jose. In addition to his brighter-than-the-sun personality, he had a charming smile and a talent for making my favorite taco salad. He made going to the dining hall bearable, hell, even enjoyable. After that day, I looked forward to seeing him everyday.
As freshman year progressed, under Jose’s tutelage, my Spanish did as well. Soon we were having full conversations. And, dare I say we were… flirting?
He’d call me cute and I would say he had nice eyes. He’d playfully tease me about my pronunciation and I’d blush when he gave me extra dressing.
Sometimes he felt like my only friend, the only one who liked me, and though we were separated by a language barrier, age difference, glass wall (literally) and the fear of creating a campus scandal, I often dreamed of us packing the romaine and hitting the road, with nowhere to be but together.
At the end of the year, I decided to transfer schools. I wanted to be closer to home, with people who liked and understood me, and at a school where I had a better shot at successful socializing. On my last day, I got my salad and didn’t say anything other than, “Romaine, avocado, peppers, cheese, chicken, tomato, tortilla strips, and cilantro dressing, por favor.”
Jose knew something was up. He tracked me down after his shift and for the first time we spoke beyond the wall.
I told him I was leaving for Virginia, far away. I said I would never forget him, his kind words and his delicious salads. He said many things very quickly in Spanish but ended with “Gracias, mi amor” and a kiss on the cheek.
We parted ways, never to see each other again.
I prepare my taco salad as Jose would want it. Crunchy romaine, yellow peppers, creamy avocado, cherry tomatoes, a sprinkle of jack cheese, and crispy tortillas. And, as Jose would say, “de pollo para la fuerza,” chicken for strength. I finish it off with a sweet and spicy, perfectly green, cilantro dressing.
Every time I eat it, I am reminded of the man who made mealtime more manageable. That salad-slinging saint who brought a smile to my face on dark days. Jose, my forbidden freshman year flirtation, whom I will always think of fondly.
Marinate the chicken – blend all the marinade ingredients together until smooth. Pour into a large bowl. Add the chicken, toss to coat, cover with plastic and let sit in fridge for four hours or as long as overnight.
Make the tortilla crispers – cut tortillas into strips. Toss with canola oil and sprinkle with salt. Place in a 425° F oven and bake for four minutes. Flip the strips and bake for another 2 – 3 minutes until golden brown and crispy. Set aside to cool.
Grill the chicken – coat a grill pan with one tablespoon of canola oil and heat on medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, place the chicken on the pan. Grill for 8 – 9 minutes on first side and flip.
Grill for an additional 8-9 minutes until the internal temperature of the chicken is 160° F. Remove from pan, cover with foil and let rest while you make the dressing.
Make the dressing – place all ingredients except for the oil into a blender. Blend until smooth. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil slowly until the dressing has emulsified.
To assemble – I top a big pile of romaine lettuce with cherry tomatoes, diced avocado, cubed jack cheese, sliced yellow peppers, tortilla crisps, and sliced chicken. I drizzle the whole thing generously with cilantro dressing – just as Jose would have wanted it.
Jose's Taco Salad
1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken cutlets
1/2 cup of canola oil
juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons of honey
1 teaspoon of grated garlic
1 teaspoon of chipotle powder
1/2 teaspoon of paprika
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
1 teaspoon of salt
4 oz of small corn tortillas
1 tablespoon of canola oil
1 clove of garlic
juice of 2 1/2 – 3 limes
1/4 cup of honey
1 cup cilantro
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of canola oil
sliced yellow peppers
anything you want really!
Make the marinade by placing all ingredients into a blender and puréeing until smooth.
Pour the marinade into a large bowl and add chicken. Toss the chicken to coat, cover with plastic wrap, and let chill in the fridge for four hours or overnight.
While the chicken marinates, make the tortilla crisps. Cut the tortillas into 1/2 inch strips. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and toss with oil and salt. Place in a 425° F oven and bake for 4 minutes. Flip the strips and bake for an additional 2 – 3 minutes until crispy. Remove and set aside.
After four hours, remove the chicken from marinade and discard the remaining marinade. Grease a grill pan with canola oil and heat over medium-high flame. Once the pan is hot, add the chicken cutlets and grill on the first side for 8 – 9 minutes. Flip the chicken and grill on the second side for an additional 8 – 9 minutes until the internal temperature is 160° F. Set aside to rest while you make the dressing.
Place all dressing ingredients except for the oil, in a blender. Blend until smooth. With the motor running stream in the oil and mix until emulsified. Set aside.
To assemble the salad, top romaine with sliced chicken, tortilla strips, and any of the suggested toppings you desire. Drizzle with dressing and enjoy!