El Santuario Tacos and Cocktails is a fabulous, fascinating place in Olmito

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Red miso Ramen at El Santuario is a traditional Japanese recipe with a South Texas twist. (Travis M. Whitehead/Valley Morning Star)

OLMITO — Ramen noodles.

When I think of Ramen noodles, I reflect on another time in another place when I had no money and relied for sustenance on the Ramen noodles that packed the shelves of H-E-B.

So when Mike, the manager at El Santuario Tacos and Cocktails, suggests Ramen noodles as the day’s special I have a visceral reaction to what at first glance seems an oxymoron.

Ramen noodles of a poor man’s diet served as the day’s special at a popular restaurant.

I feel myself recoil at the idea and glance at the menu, which further eclipses my sense of reason. This is first and foremost a taco restaurant, and when I think of tacos, I think of beef, chicken or pork with onions, tomatoes and cilantro.

I think of my favorite taco stand in Saltillo, Mexico, where the cooks constantly shave sizzling meat off a vertical rotisserie. The seamless innovations of this taco stand in Plaza Acuna always intrigue me and impress me. There’s the gringa taco – pastor con queso en harina. There’s pirata: bistec con queso en harina. There’s the tacos al pastor, tacos barbacoa, tacos bistec; it never seems to end.

Here at El Santuario on 7077 Frontage Road in Olmito, near the busy intersection with Anacua Street, I find a section of tacos under the listing Old School Tacos. In the Old School Tacos section, I see the mole tacos, the pork al pastor and the taco de bistec, and they are familiar to me. They are tasty, and they are good.

But then my eyes become riveted by another section titled Original Tacos, and in that section I see quail tacos, the spicy tofu tacos, and the duck tacos, and I’m starting to feel like nothing in this place makes any sense.

This is a somewhat perplexing reaction from me considering my attraction to the variation, the eccentric, the novel and the inventive. While I do seek out those things which challenge my own mental routines, this place is so innovative and new it even throws me off my rusty hinges. I must confess here that even I sometimes get stuck on the rusty hinges of the familiar, the routine and the conventional.

My being startled by duck tacos, alligator tacos and cauliflower tacos is clear proof that I need something especially shocking and new to knock me off my rusty hinges of routine and put me back on the track of the creative and the innovative.

For a minute I’m so thoroughly shocked back to my sensibilities that the Old School tacos and the tacos in Saltillo seem boring. I don’t want the usual tacos. I want the unusual ones, and I’m anxious to try them.

Alligator tacos and duck tacos are just two of the curious offerings at El Santuario. (Travis M. Whitehead/Valley Morning Star)

But then Mike reminds me again of the Ramen noodle special, and then I keep seeing that image of gray and cold winter days with no money and few friends. I’m in my drab and unappealing apartment. I’ve got a plain pot with no handle, and I’m breaking up Ramen noodles, putting them in the pot with the water, opening the little packet of spices and tossing the spices into the pot to get at least a little flavor. I’m hating this mundane existence with the boring food and the bare walls, and I’m at a dreary resignation that this may be my life in perpetuity.

But here I am 30 years later and that apartment and the boring Ramen noodles are really just a sad memory that has no power over me because I have canceled that negative power with new images of walking through the crafts fairs in Mexico and eating fresh carne on a comal in a hut in some far away village or helping local shuck corn.

Perhaps it is the power of those innovations and images that has diminished the memory of dark times, because I’m sitting here today in El Santuario, and I’d like to see how Ramen noodles can make it into a restaurant’s menu and be the day’s special.

So I’ve ordered the Ramen noodles, and I’m waiting in quiet anticipation of my meal and I listen to Mike converse in a jovial manner with other patrons who appreciate his attentive manner and the authenticity of his conversation.

Now Mike brings something to my table that is beautiful and innovative and enticing: Ramen noodles hot in a large bowl with chopsticks and a spoon for those like myself who can’t master the skill of eating with chopsticks – or perhaps don’t want to. I’ve eaten with chopsticks before, but it does require an extra measure of concentration. And tonight I don’t want to think of anything except Ramen noodles and the taste of those Ramen noodles in a popular restaurant on a Saturday night.

And this bowl is marvelous. This is not Ramen noodles from H-E-B. It’s his personal rendition of a red miso Ramen, a traditional recipe from northern Japan, explains Chef David Rendon.

“It has the ingredients of mushrooms, and then for the mushrooms I use white mushrooms, Portobellos, and shitakes,” he says. “I use the red miso base for the red miso, and the I add ginger garlic, the spicy crunchy chili sauce, vegetable broth, rice wine, soy sauce.”

That’s the tradition, but then Rendon moves to the innovative.

“I did add the fried pork belly. I did add the fire roasted corn, and then for the chili, too, I made it a little spicier because down here our culture is a little spicier,” he says.

Innovation and intrigue require courage, and the courage of something new is the spice that fires the vitality of life, exploration and discovery. This kind of discovery and the removal of the rusty hinges grant us liberty and relief from the repetitive and mind numbing memories of dark times in far away places and distant times, and I’m thankful for places like El Santuario for yet another bright experience and the fine memory that follows.

Even more delightful is the journey that continues. Rendon plans to add a yellow miso Ramen and a white miso Ramen.