My new favorite restaurant started as my roommate’s homework. His intro Spanish teacher had asked students to visit and take pictures of four Mexican & Guatemalan restaurants in town, thus confirming my vague suspicion that some of the entry-level language courses at Princeton are in certain ways indistinguishable from their middle school equivalents. It sounded exactly like the kind of “creative” “outside the classroom” assignment that was your mom or dad would have had to drive you around for, half-begrudgingly, wondering as you caught Pokémon in the backseat why your fourth grade teacher had to assign them homework too.
So I played the part of parent sans minivan and together we walked across Nassau and down Witherspoon, permeating the Orange Bubble and passing its satellites (Small World, Olives), then the library and the cemetery, until we entered the part of Princeton where you hear Spanish spoken. Presumably this was the intent of the assignment—a mild form of language immersion.
Two blocks from the library we found our first destination, 146 Witherspoon, an unassuming white square façade that you’d never notice unless actively looking for it, where Central American deliciousness is packed dense into small space. Chapin Restaurant is functionally a narrow corridor. When you walk in there’s a pizza-parlor-type counter on the left with 5 stools, and a fridge in front of you, and a cash register on the right. No food lies in immediate sight. To make the food appear you grab a menu off the counter and find a comforting array of Mexican staples—burritos and empanadas and all the rest in every meat permutation—along with some less familiar Guatemalan specialties, like hen. Then, if you’re like me, you play it safe on your first visit and hand them six dollars and ask for a chicken taco. After the cashier disappeared into an unseen kitchen I stared at the fridge’s contents: Central American soft drinks, including a beguiling sea-green bottle full of cloudy aloe chunklets. In roughly seven minutes I received smiles and a warm paper bag and we took a photo and left the little hallway called Chapin.
Aware of the hollow ache in my tummy we decided to eat en route to our next destination. Inside the bag was a tinfoil bundle, which housed three lime halves and three tacos small enough to fit snugly in the palm. It was dark but I sought out the vague form of the first taco and bit it. Being blind to what I ate strangely enhanced my experience: I couldn’t visually break the taco down into its components, so each bite was unknowable until chewed, forcing me to treat the meal as one coherent entity, a monad, unpredictable, with meat and spice and crisp and soft and tang in varying proportions. I ate the entire first taco knowing nothing about what was inside, only that I liked it and wanted to eat two more of it. Lacking any specifics, I distilled the taco into its two salient features: its freshness and texture.
Hoping to pinpoint what was responsible for those two abstract nouns, I took some time to dissect the second taco in the pale glow of a streetlight. Tortilla unfurled to expose bits of crisp roasted chicken and hot shards of jalapeno—which gave each bite a kick nearly equivalent in heat, and certainly superior in flavor, to the dutiful injections of Cholula and Tabasco that I usually administer to my tasteless campus burritos. The corn tortilla, soft but charred in all the right places, crinkling at the edges, foisted its freshness on me—unlike the anemic white mush of commercial tortilla it actually tasted like something that had come from corn, from the earth, from this Earth.
Now perhaps the most crucial feature, which took me a few bites to discern: the Chapin taco had its own unique geology. Each taco consisted of two or three thin tortillas and so, accounting for the fold-over, each bite yielded four or six layers. Your teeth pass through the crisp outer crust, then the soft mantle, then that ill hot chicken ‘n’ pepper lava, and then back out again. Yet somehow despite all this density the meal felt improbably light afterwards. Owing mainly to its lack of oil—oil, perhaps the defining virtue of much of the Mexican food I’ve eaten, was nowhere to be found here. No dubious reddish pool to be found in the tinfoil, no incriminating sogginess in the tortilla. The chicken was spiced and roasted dry and respectable. The tortilla had integrity and the pepper was crisp and honest.
Nay, these tacos dripped nothing but authenticity, and as skeptical as I am of a word like that—of the weird shade of condescension it takes on when applied to ethnic cuisine—it seems to me the only word appropriate. The Chapin taco tastes like something that you’d cook for your family, elegant in proportion, simple in its components, and speedily, perfectly executed. Hailing from the Garden State I perhaps lack the exacting standards of the West Coast Mexican Food Elitist, but even I figure a good taco is hard to find around these parts. Frist fare is okay with the narrow context of late meal; the Whitman bar overshoots but underperforms; Ivy does a serviceable but forgettable Central American buffet; Qdoba will overcharge you for a predictably insipid chain burrito. Tortuga’s is a strong contender, but the nearby Chapin reigns supreme—and is, incidentally, also the cheapest of them all.
Insofar as this article has a purpose, it is to reprogram the minds of Princeton students so that the first connotation of “Chapin” is not a fine school for girls but instead a fine purveyor of Central American cuisine. Why does no one seem to know of this place? It is easy on the wallet. It is toothsome. It is far but not that far, and provided you start eating on the way back you’ll lose all sense of yourself and numb yourself to the distance. While munching tacos we walked aimlessly to the next homework destination, and in the dark I walked past porches with people shouting, deserted playgrounds with no one swinging, and we got lost but I didn’t care because I was eating my way into bliss. I also, more generally, recommend eating in the dark.