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    Eat & Swig

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    My husband recently told me this tale from his youth: In a South Carolina mall, a hair salon and a Godfather’s Pizza sat as cozy neighbors. Too cozy. Because in the early ’90s, when one walked in ready to smell gooey cheese and mall-grade crust, all the nostrils got were pungent perms — big, feathery, Gen X, South Carolina perms. I’d never experienced such olfactory shock and awe in my lifetime. Until I made it to Taco Steve.

    I knew this popular New Albany taco shop occupied the back of a small bookstore. And yet, upon opening the door to Destinations Booksellers (where “a book fitly chosen is a friend for life”), a severe and divine Mexican scent storm mixed me up. I had to stand still for a moment and confirm the obvious to my companion: “This bookstore smells like tacos.”

    No wall or hallway separates bookstore from taco shop. Customers go past the Abe Lincoln biographies and religious reads, past YA and New York Times bestsellers. I had to wonder if the future owner of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How they Communicate would smile upon cracking the spine and reliving the memory of chorizo with each chapter.

    About 20 to 30 steps into the bookstore, several tables and chairs announced Taco Steve’s territory. Behind the counter, a chipper woman was taking orders. The kitchen behind her was mostly obscured by a large menu and the restaurant logo — a hip, hard-shell taco with a goatee and glasses. It wasn’t until I sat down that I saw the top half of a head bobbing around the kitchen — bald, glasses, facial hair. Ah! Taco Steve. During lulls, he and the woman taking orders occasionally sang. At one point she serenaded Taco Steve with “Hand Jive” from Grease.

    Guacamole and chips arrived first. “Chunky, lots of cumin, bold,” according to my notes. I actually wrote the word “sassy.” We next dove into a mini taco trio — pork, chorizo and potato and chicken, all on soft corn tortillas. The chicken was sweet and spicy and the fresh cabbage, cilantro and jalapeños made for a lovely little package. The mini tacos — not much larger than a Chips Ahoy! cookie — were too tiny to eat like a taco. But they were piled generously, so just grab a knife and fork and make life easier.

    A side of black bean mash brought smiles, as did the cheesy rice that’s somewhere between naughty cafeteria food and Gran’s rice puddin’. (I swear I tasted cinnamon!) The real wonder of the meal was a plump vegetarian burrito packed with fresh cabbage, peppers, roasted vegetables and just the right amount of cheese, topped with cilantro and stripes of smoky salsa. 

    Before our food had arrived, I wandered the bookstore, noticing the quiet middle-aged man tending to his books. He wore a short-sleeve dress shirt tucked into belted dress pants, a bottled iced tea at his desk. I resisted making a lame joke to my companion about this business model being like a mullet — business in front, party in the back. 

    I had read that Taco Steve started as a taco cart before moving to this space and that the bookstore formerly hosted a coffee bar in the rear, arguably a more logical choice. But after a delicious meal and a reminder that I really do want to read The Hidden Life of Trees one of these days, I can’t deny the coupling of literature and tacos. It’s better than pizza and perms.

    This originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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