Most people know Timmy Vulgar (aka Tim Lampinen) for his antics as the lead singer of the Clone Defects, Human Eye and Timmy's Organism. Some may be familiar with his visual art, which often adorns the records he's on. But fewer still know him as a talented cook.
Among those who do, though, word is that Vulgar has worked at dozens — unbelievably, some say hundreds — of metro Detroit restaurants. He names just a few, saying he was "like a sous chef" at Woodbridge Pub in Detroit, and worked at Enzo's Catering in Whitmore Lake. He says he also worked last year at PJ's Lager House, and that they still use a few of his recipes there.
These days, he limits his culinary work to serving his tacos when he bartends Wednesday nights at Hamtramck's Painted Lady Lounge. His tacos are no joke. When it comes to food, Vulgar is most obsessed with Mexican fare. Explaining it in the kitchen of his house on McDougall Street in Hamtramck, he says, "From when I was in second grade to seventh grade, my family lived in Arizona. Mexican was my father's favorite food, and my mom loved margaritas, so I was exposed to lots of Mexican food growing up. It has become my cuisine of choice. It's interesting, colorful, definitely the most fun kind of food to make."
But Vulgar strives to keep his Mexican food authentic, using real corn tortillas, white onions, fresh lime and cilantro, and very limited cheese. "If there's one thing I hate," he says, "it's fake, crappy, gringo Mexican food. That's my least favorite Mexican food. It's inauthentic, it's Tex-Mex, it's cheesy. I mean, it's terrible when somebody does a bad version of something you love. It's like some horrible commercial rock band covering the Who!"
He can sometimes be seen chowing down at Detroit's Taqueria Lupita's or Taqueria Nuestra Familia, or shopping for Mexican ingredients at Honeybee la Colmena in Detroit's Mexicantown, which he calls "the real deal."
In addition to learning by working in kitchens, he says he gained inspiration, as well as some of his favorite techniques, from TV host Mad Coyote Joe, author of A Gringo's Guide to Authentic Mexican Cooking.
Holding up the book, Vulgar says, "He learned authentic Mexican cooking by hanging out on farms and stuff and just watching how real people cook this food."
In fact, the shredded beef recipe he is preparing tonight is from the book, with some of his own tweaks. It's called a barbacoa, but authentic Mexican cooking uses the face of a cow. By using English roast, he hopes to re-create the authentic, slow-roasted, shredded beef tacos, but with a better cut of meat.
Speaking of cookbooks, he pulls out a book with recipes from the painter Frida Kahlo: Frida's Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo. Thumbing through the photographs, he points out the food's impressive visual appeal.
"Mexican food is really healthy, but it's also fun and happy and colorful to look at."
Comparing Mexican food to art? For Vulgar, it's no stretch.
"Cooking is a good hobby when I'm not doing music or painting, doing art — or getting loaded at the bar," he says with a laugh. "It's just ... a sensory overload. With music, you get the sound, and playing live you get the vision. But food engages all the senses, where with other arts, it's only partial. You get the taste, but also the smell and sound of onions sizzling, you get to see the presentation and color. Cooking is a way to blend the enjoyment of all human senses."
In addition to his cookbooks, Vulgar has his own spiral notebook of recipes for his roasts and salsas. He says they're not all winners, but he keeps recipes of failed experiments along with winning recipes, designating each with a number of stars to note how good they turned out, ranging from zero stars to "five stars + infinity."
With all this hard-won knowledge, he's reluctant to give out information. He admits that his secret weapon is dried Mexican oregano, one of his favorite ingredients, but he warns, "Be careful with that stuff."
And Mexican food may be humble peasant food, but it's still really complex. His spice rack is like a painter's palette, filled with ground spices, dried chilies and other seasonings. He might use a dried mulato chile, toasting it in a pan to bring out its delicate chocolate or licorice flavors, then add ancho powder for a slightly less sweet salsa.
To further compare art with cooking, Vulgar is like an action painter in the kitchen, sprinkling spices and chopped onions with a zeal that could rival Jackson Pollock's. When given an audience, he mugs and jokes as if it were a vaudeville routine. We spent hours watching Vulgar cook and, frankly, we were laughing our ass off. (And we were lucky enough to capture it on video; see below.)
But the proof is in the pudding. Later, at the Painted Lady Lounge, Vulgar serves two tacos to some curious guests in from Mexico City. Even though they've arrived after a full dinner, they still manage to crush three tacos. Both of them rave about the creations. One of them, Dante Saucedo, says, "They were definitely authentic, homemade style. Best homemade tacos I've had in the States, by far." Vulgar's pride is evident.
"That other girl liked my tacos too," he says, laughing deviously, in reference to another patron. "She wouldn't dare admit that she works at a crappy Tex-Mex place. But I know!"
Experimental Beef Salsa
11 dried arbol chilies
2 dried mulato chilies
2 cups chicken-tomato stock, boiled
1 small white onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
2 toes garlic
10 tablespoons crushed tomato
1 pinch dried Mexican oregano
Add one packet chicken-tomato bouillon to two cups water; bring to boil. Toast dried chilies in a pan but do not burn. Remove stems and seeds from chilies and add to boiling stock. Add onion, garlic, ancho powder. Boil five minutes, let cool. Add crushed tomato, juice of lime and oregano. Puree in food processor. Refrigerate overnight.