TWO BROWN HORSES, one regular-sized and one miniature, stand head to kneecap in a patch of grass just yards away from where we’ve pulled up. As the battle-scarred Jeep Cherokee lurches forward into park, an otter lumbers across the scene in a huff, disappearing into a nearby shed. I grab my braids in an effort to ground myself after the turbulent drive through jungly terrain that got me here. As I continue to take in my surroundings, I can’t help but smile at the appropriateness of my ’do. I mean, I may as well have been dropped here by a tornado.
Old-fashioned wooden farmhouse? Right in front of me. Technicolor? It’s everywhere: in the red, yellow, blue and green flags fluttering across the stone facade of an enclosed cave behind the farmhouse, and in the boldly colored wooden trim of said cave and the neighboring barn-slash-temple and cupola-topped cottage—the latter being home to a big-deal Tibetan monk. Not to mention the wildflowers peppering the field where all of these structures combine to create a Buddhist meditation compound.
We jump out of the car and greet the horses. As I stand there stroking the mane of the giant one, doing my level best to convince his shy, tiny sidekick to be my friend, it dawns on me that when I’d set out this morning, this was the last place I’d expected to land. But as implausible as this tableau seems—the tiny horse, the otter, the Buddhist prayer flags—I suppose at the end of the day, it’s no crazier than the quest that brought me to this part of the state to begin with. After all, I’ve trekked it out to tiny Parthenon, population 193, for, of all things … tacos.
Just a few weeks before, said tacos had stopped me in my tracks on social media. The menu described tacos unlike any I’d ever encountered: cleverly crafted vegetarian numbers, both whimsical and elegant at the same time. Take the Oi Y’all—Brazilian black-eyed peas, popcorn, okra, micro greens and a coffee-mayo sauce. Or the Qui & Poe, filled with white quinoa, sweet potatoes, crumbled Fritos and sweet-chili crema. Are you kidding me!
And then I learned that a Brazilian chef was behind those tacos. And that she was schlepping them across the state to festivals and private events in a vintage 1968 trailer emblazoned with a handmade sign that read “Larica Micro Taqueria.” And when she wasn’t doing that, she was living out in the middle of nowhere, on a small farm nestled in the heart of the Murray Valley. And that her last name was—wait for it—Farmer.
So I’d done what I simply had to do: I’d made a date to meet the woman behind that menu.
Earlier in the day, before my trip down the otter hole, when I’d arrived on the farm—which is located about 4 miles outside of Jasper, a town just a few miles upstream from the Buffalo National River—my hostess, whose first name is Cristina, ushered me into her ranch-style farmhouse, where a chilled pitcher of fresh-squeezed watermelon juice stood waiting for me on the kitchen counter. Sparsely and elegantly decorated, the house was immaculate. Glass vases of flowers were scattered here and there, and bamboo blinds hung from the windows. A large Buddhist statue was the focal point of the dining room.
Dressed down in faded jeans, a blue and white cotton T-shirt and white Keds, and sporting not a drop of makeup, Cristina, nonetheless, cut an imposing figure. She’s a slender woman with a delicate, fine-boned face, penetrating dark brown eyes and thick dark hair. Her skin is freakishly smooth, making it impossible to ballpark her age, something she made clear early on that she wasn’t going to divulge.
As it turned out, her age wasn’t the only subject she wanted to keep off the table. Her relationship with her husband, David Farmer, whom she’d married about a year ago, was another. “I’m a bit guarded, as you might have noticed,” she explained, refilling my glass of juice. “And I know that. I’m just very self-conscious, but not in an egotistical way. I’m just always watching out.”
And farm life? She didn’t have much to say about that, either. (For its part, the farm is a modest operation, driven mainly by a herd of about 40 cows, but there were countless chickens and horses on board as well, not to mention a large vegetable garden.) “People romanticize farming, and it’s not glamorous,” she pointed out after we’d grabbed a basket full of eggs from the coop and were walking over to the garden to snip some greens.
So, Cristina Farmer is not going to be an easy Brazilian nut to crack, I thought as we walked back to the kitchen with our bounty.
“Am I being too abrupt?” she asked anxiously as I took my seat at the bar. “I’m a very assertive person. But I’m kind! I am kind!”
After I’d assured her that in my line of work, “too abrupt” was not a thing, she began to vigorously stir white quinoa into boiling water, then got to chopping the greens we’d harvested. As she relaxed into her cooking, clearly in her element, she started to let go a few details about herself. Like that she’d grown up in Rio de Janeiro and that she’d moved to the United States when she was 21 by way of Chicago, not too long after visiting a friend who’d moved there, ultimately escaping the brutal Chicago winters by moving out west. That before moving to Arkansas about five years ago, she’d lived in Santa Cruz. That, for 15 years, she’d gotten on-the-job training in well-established restaurants in California because she was too self-conscious about her English to attend culinary school in the States.
She also confided that upon her move to Arkansas, she’d initially taken a stab at parking her food trailer in Jasper. “It was a struggle,” she recalled, especially the part where she found herself serving her tacos to many folks who had only ever tasted the Tex-Mex variety. Ultimately, she’d decided to leave her spot in Jasper to follow the festival circuit and to cater private events.
“I didn’t want to cook meat anymore, which I felt I’d have to keep doing to make it work in Jasper, and I wanted to go to a place where there was a lot of people,” she explained, mentioning that it had only been in the last year or so that she’d begun traversing the festival circuit with her tacos under her new Larica brand. (“Larica” is Brazilian slang for “the munchies.”)
But the roadblocks she’d faced in Jasper do still crop up from time to time, even on the festival circuit, she said, turning around to face me, spoon in midair. “Like after I give the food sometimes—and David sees this and tells me about it—people will look at it and say, ‘This is so different. This is not a taco.’”
“I still have people come to me and say, ‘Can you do normal tacos?’” she added, then smiled. “But then there are people who say, ‘This is the best taco I’ve ever had!’ So it balances out.”
She refocused her attention back at the stove. “OK, when I do my tortillas, I actually ‘souffle’ them in sunflower oil,” she said, throwing a tortilla into a pan of sizzling oil.
“What do you mean by ‘souffle?’” I asked.
“I mean I steam and souffle them at the same time,” she tried to explain. “So they puff up a bit, and then I sprinkle them with my ‘fairy dust.’”
“What’s that? Can I taste it?”
She proffered a small bowl of red powder. “It’s salt and seasoning,” she said.
“What kind of seasoning? I taste cumin.”
“I can’t tell you!”
“Paprika. Is there paprika in there?”
“No! I can’t tell you!”
Secret safe, she turned back to the oven, and in a flash of sauteing, mixing and Frito-crumbling, her first offering was before me: the aforementioned Qui & Poe. It was sweet and smoky and crunchy, a five-bite taco that I devoured in three. Next up was her take on a breakfast taco, a medley of fried egg, braised red chard and her agave-tomato jam, which takes upward of 10 hours to prepare.
“Mmm … mmm … why is this one so good?” I asked, having been transported to taco heaven.
“Because it has all five different flavors,” she explained, “Even umami, with the egg.”
Next up was the Little Bombs of Deliciousness, a combination of cherry tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant, and Cristina’s first stab at red mole sauce.
“It’s brand new,” she said as she set the plate down in front of me. “I’ve never made it before. I was just like ‘I have this cacao from my friend who got it from Costa Rica,”’ she said, pulling a Ziploc bag of powdery brown cacao beans from a cabinet and dangling it in front of me. “So I should do something with it. That’s usually a big part of my process. I have one ingredient, usually from the garden, and I just have to figure out what to do with it.”
As I tucked into the next one, which Cristina calls Lots’ Avocado, I completely missed the story behind the standout ingredient—pickled watermelon rind—because I’d become so engrossed in its light, refreshing deliciousness.
My head was spinning. I’d gotten my hands on those tacos that had so intrigued me, and just as I’d imagined, they’d been damn good. Yet I still wasn’t completely satisfied. In fact, now I was even more confounded. I just didn’t get what this worldly and talented chef was doing in such an off-the-beaten-path place. After a bit more prodding, she answered my question with an explanation that was, um, unexpected.
It was a Tibetan Buddhist monk who’d brought her here.
One Khentrul Rinpoche, to be specific. For the past decade, Rinpoche (for short) had directed Cristina’s Buddhist meditation practice. It was back in 2006 that he’d chosen Parthenon as the site of his now world-renowned meditation retreat, the Katog Choling Mountain Retreat Center. Living in Parthenon allowed Cristina to be close to it and to Rinpoche the handful of times a year he was in residence there.
“So my journey to Arkansas was a spiritual one,” she said as she stacked dishes in the sink. “I’m like a total fundamentalist Buddhist. Before you came, I thought on and on and on, ‘Do I want to talk about Buddhism? Do I want to bring that part of me out into this?’ But it’s such a huge part of my story, such a huge part of who I am. If I didn’t, it would be a gap in my story, it would be like an amputation if I didn’t bring it up, so I have to do it. It’s time.”
And then she’d paused. “Do you have to leave at a certain time? I can take you there. It’s 20 minutes away, but I can get us there in 15.”
I grabbed my pen and notebook, realizing it was my best shot at understanding what this woman was all about.
And that’s how I landed here at this Buddhist meditation compound, desperately trying to win over a teeny horse named Shadow. Once we’ve finished paying our respects to the horses, Cristina begins to show me around. Proudly, as if she’s giving me a tour of her dream house, she takes me through its main buildings, the farmhouse, the barn-slash-temple and the meditation cave. “I can already feel myself relaxing,” she comments when we step into the barn. I’d noticed it, too. Almost as soon as we’d reached the retreat center, she’d become lighter, more at ease.
After we take a turn around the inside of the barn-temple, an airy space with rows of meditation cushions directed toward a colorful and elaborate shrine, we linger a bit at the entrance. “My spirituality, my meditation, it’s something that informs everything I do, even my cooking,” she explains. As I listen to her talk about her practice, this chef, those tacos—everything starts to make sense.
For one thing, I understand why her food is vegetarian/vegan in a place where such a restriction can be a hindrance. And I understand how Cristina chooses what ingredients to marry in her tacos. “I play with taste without creating a lot of clash or contrast,” she explains as we stand about, hesitant to leave the peaceful serenity of the space. “While I do want a balance of acidity and umami, I like it best when flavors blend harmoniously.” I even understand why she’d decided to be a mobile chef. It’s a way for her to live out one of the tenets of her practice, the one that asks her to work toward bringing joy into the lives of others. “When I’m at an event, I’m not just there to serve lunch,” she says. “I’m there to be part of the event, to be part of the celebration. To bring about happiness to my customers.”
Driving back to the farm, we chat about topics that before were off limits. When our chatter returns to her husband, she volunteers that he’s a fifth-generation farmer in these parts. “So that means that I am, as they say here, ‘kin and cousin’ to half of the people that live here,” she laughs. “And I’m Brazilian! Isn’t that crazy?” I laugh along, but inwardly I’m thinking just how lucky the Farmers are—and just how lucky we all are that this Brazilian chef has chosen our tiny corner of the world to spice up.
Anxious to get your hands on a Larica taco? (We understand.) Follow Cristina at facebook.com/goodkindtacos to learn of her whereabouts.