Wednesday at noon, Eating Companion and I are standing dumbstruck inside Bianca's Mexican Market, just north of downtown Sarasota. EC and I have spent some time in Mexico, both on the mainland and in Baja, and this place is legit.
There are all types of weird things in chafing dishes, vats of red beans, what looks like fried pork of some sort, and clear plastic bowls of sinister looking poblanos and chile sauces. The back of the building is a market with rows and rows of Mexican produce, a bakery case full of fresh breads and sweets all priced between $1 and $1.50, a massive cooler of Mexican juices and beverages, as well as a selection of porcelain cats, random novelty stuff, and a ton of Catholic Saint candles. (Insider secret: most Mexican Coca-Cola in glass bottles doesn't have high fructose corn syrup, for some reason.)
Alongside the booths and communal tables there is also a massive machine-driven conveyor-belt type thing with the word "Tortilleria" — tortilla maker — written on a sign above it. Fresh corn tortillas are $1 per pound.
The reason we are a little overwhelmed is an issue of choice: our experience with true Mexican food, in Mexico, was limited to drunken midnight taco stand stops, where you just pick from a couple meats by pointing, hunger overriding pickiness. Here at Bianca's, there are eight platform options — tacos, tortas, tostadas, gorditas, quesadillas, sopes, huaraches and burritos — and 13 different protein options — bistek, carnitas, lengua, pastor, chickarrron, cueritos, trengua, tripa, etc. — making for 104 variations of foreign dishes, about which EC and I know very little.
We are paralyzed by choice.
Some of the staff speaks English better than others. Our waitress is amused with our attempts at Spanish, and also not terribly eager to help us decide. When asked if chorizo con huevos would be better on a torta or in a taco, she simply smiles and says, ‘Yeah, sure, tostada, taco, sure.’ I'm tempted to look the items up on my phone, but, well...
We basically just wing it: a tostada with barbacoa de borrego; a quesadilla with bistek; tacos with pollo, pastor, lengua, and carnitas; and a torta with chorizo con huevos. Prices vary item to item, but everything is between $1.50 and $4, which makes for a feast at well under $20.
I also order a horchata, which I’m just so happy they have. Horchata — basically a sort of nutmeg-y, cinnamon-y, rice/almond/sesame seed/barley/tigernut milk drink, with just ungodly amounts of sugar — is what I imagine runs in the streams and rivers of heaven. It is sweet, creamy nectar. Bianca's is heavy on the sugar, but light on the spices. It's still divine.
Each dish comes out as it is finished, and it turns out we’ve ordered a lot of food. The quesadilla is amusingly enormous, stuffed full of cheese and greasy shredded steak. The tacos arrive together, all on one plate, and neither of us can tell what is what. The meats, for the most part, are all shredded and messy and moist. There’s a condiment bar with pico de gallo, pickled carrots and jalapenos, diced onions, and plenty more.
Though there are a number of sauces that look good, I’m hunting for one very particular hot sauce: Tapatio. I ask the waitress if she has any. She smiles. “You know,” she says. “Most Americans think we drink Corona in Mexico. No. No. Dos Equis is the best. Same with this. We don’t use that,” pointing to the row of red sauces, “we use this,” pulling out a 32 ounce bottle of Tapatio from behind the counter. Feeling worldly, I proceed to drench the rest of the meal with Tapatio, as does EC.
Bianca’s is an experience to be taken on its own terms. It will confound and surprise you. It will make you feel a little helpless. It will leave you gutted, your tongue lit up, your eyes a little watery. But you should go. And grab a bottle of Tapatio and a Saint candle while you’re there.