Hell's Angel Heaven

By Stephen Hunter
Sunday, June 25, 2000

TOUCAN TACO -- 315 GORMAN AVE., LAUREL. 301-498-9833. Open: Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 4 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. D, MC, V. No reservations. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $1.35 to $3.55, entrees $3.20 to $7.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip $6 to $16.

Ah, the great restaurants of the world: La Tour d'Argent in Paris, Le Cirque in Manhattan, Kinkead's in Washington and, of course, the greatest of them all, called Tippy's Taco House, in Laurel, Md.

Except it isn't, not anymore. Now it's called Toucan Taco, since it broke off from the scruffy mother chain a few years back and could no longer call itself Tippy's. But to anybody who ever ate there during its classic period, from the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s, it will be forever Tippy's. Run by Mr. Tippy himself, an august, white-haired personage, it was staffed by the cook Bob (morose, gigantic, Hell's Angel Bob, now long gone his own way: Vaya con dios, amigo, wherever you are) and the wondrous waitress Libby, who believed in Saint Elvis (she wept when he died and made the pilgrimage to Graceland many times) and never ever made a mistake over 20 years of waiting on my family and various alarmed guests.

The guests were alarmed because they'd heard us wax lyrical about the place, and then we dragged them to it, and watched with secret glee as the color drained from their faces, their lips dried out and little nervous twitches played through their throats. They gulped gamely and tried to pretend they got it (they didn't) as they approached a run-down brick strip mall that looked as if it had been built on the same day the drive-in theater was invented. Then they entered, grew yet more alarmed at what they saw: bright, cheesy, touristy gimcracks, roughly Mexican, on the walls; linoleum, always clean but much dimpled and yellowed with age; Formica furniture ancient even in the '70s; plywood walls; acoustic tiling in the ceiling except where it had peeled or spotted through or simply fallen out. And the other clientele, not exactly your suburban yuppie sort: a variety of cycle guys in leather rebel caps, their leathery gals (lots of leather-skinned folks seem to come to Tippy's, usually with tattoos and rolled-up smokes in the T-shirt sleeve); some genuine Mexicans from the horse barns at Laurel's nearby track; bitter refugees from Columbia, seeking the authentic and a surcease from the good taste of their toy town; and, now and then, a huge 650-pounder who sat there licking the queso off his fingers, seeming to inflate as he sucked it in. He was around a lot back then, until he finally disappeared, through some no doubt squalid misadventure. And though he was the biggest, in fact a lot of the people who ate at Tippy's were size-challenged, that is to say grotesque tubbos of calcified, cellulite-dappled mega-poundage.

Tippy's did that to you. One more tostada smeared with gluey orange cheese, one more wad of refried bean gel, one more hot dog, with its proud flecking of grated cheese smothering the saucelike lacquer of the chili, the bun somehow made chewy and delicate at once by the heating process. And the tostadas when they were fresh and usually they were: like the potato chips of the Aztec gods. You just ate and ate, and threw down the beer -- does any beer taste better than one searing cold as it quenches the napalm on your tongue from a red sauce straight out of hell? -- and the world got happy and stayed happy.

I go back occasionally, usually when my daughter is back from college, or I'm by myself and I stop in to read a gun magazine, drink a beer or seven and order up six or ten thousand grams of fat and cholesterol and calories, and although Bob and Libby are long gone and Mr. Tippy himself is more a legend than a reality, it's still great. The wait staff is still super-friendly, all one of them.

The food is largely unchanged. A few years back, when some upscale Mexican chain restaurants invaded the greater Washington metroplex, the sous-chef at Tippy's made one concession to the challenge: He concocted something to yuppie taste called a Cancun, a kind of taco salad in a pie-dough cup, meant to be "lite." I suppose it is, in the way a "lite" aircraft carrier only weighs 50,000 tons as opposed to a heavy carrier, which would weigh 80,000 tons. I'll have the great (tangy, fresh) guacamole on mine, because I love the truly nauseating color of the green when mulched with shreds of lettuce, the blood-red sauce, chips, tomatoes, the ground remnants of somebody's cattle herd, the rogue bean or two. It's disgusting, and to slurp it down on a nicely shaped, well-balanced white plastic fork is to confirm one's place on the food chain: Ecce man, conqueror of the bean.

And I love the presentation. Here's what's cool about the presentation. There ain't no stinking presentation. The food, usually brown-red in color and almost unidentifiable because it's so marbled with melted cheese and little fragments of rice and bean, is served in bright aluminum containers. When the waitress sets it down, it settles to the table top with a heavy thunk, the sound a pistol makes being placed on a bench just before a job. Heavy! Man, it's off the atomic charts! You could load it in a 30mm Warthog cannon shell and use it to unzip East Bloc tanks!

The big news is still the taco. Maybe there's a high version of these cunning little crunch-daddies, with their cleverly modulated tones of rasp and slush and sweet and tart and their bright, gaudy colors, but I've never had it. At Tippy's, they make a taco that is pure taco, an uber-taco, an echt-taco, an ur-taco, a taco that don't need no Bell behind it: It snaps, crackles and pops when you bite into it, and you feel the stress fractures shuddering through its structure, so you just sort of stuff-pour the thing into your mouth, knowing that in seconds it's going to shatter and deposit its wet center on your pants (ruined many a pair that way, I might add).

You must start with the queso, however. Usually, in other, newer restaurants, the queso seems to be one entire package of Kraft Velveeta as melted by blowtorch (plastic included). Not so here. This queso is fabulous and the menu says it best: "The delight of Laurel since 1972." No sir, can't argue with that.

But if there's a foundation to not-Tippy's, it's that red sauce. I have no idea what's in it or how they make it. You can't buy it. It's got the bite of spice under-cut ever so subversively by a counter-argument of sweetness. It's like your dad yelling, and your mom soothing. It's the red of flags and anthems and it has the thickness of cream and small issues of unidentifiable matter through it. Seeds? Bones? Eyes of gila monsters? Scorpion stingers? I have no idea. You could squirt it on toilet paper and have a mighty nice meal. But why do that? Applied generously to the food, it supplies color against the earthier brown-yellowish tendencies of the chef's offerings, and, moreover, the suggestion of complexity. It amplifies everything while never itself losing steam. It has a grind, a blast, a poetry to it. I wish I were John Updike: He could write it up good. I can only say that I spent a month being yelled at by waiters in Europe once and by the time I returned the only thing I could think about was Tippy's queso on a tostada, with its red proclamation of integrity without pretension, and honesty without arrogance, all at good value, so that you can eat with your kids, and not dump them off somewhere.

There are restaurants that are places and places that are restaurants, but Mr. Tippy's Toucan Taco is both a place and a restaurant.

Guest restaurant reviewer Stephen Hunter is one of The Post's film critics; his new novel, Hot Springs, has just been published.

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