Mission Taquerias Need to Step it Up

Dear El Farolito, Cancun, El Metate, Pancho Villa, et al (except for you Cu Co’s–we’re still cool):

We’ve been through a lot together and I definitely still love you, but I think we need to have a little talk.  You see, I strayed a bit too far this past weekend, and now I’m not sure I can ever go back.  Hey, please don’t cry.  Let me explain.

Waking up to Tijuana sunshine the morning after playing a show with a bunch of Mexican hardcore kids, there was nothing I wanted more than a taco.  And wow, just like Bo knows baseball, Tijuana knows tacos.

Now that’s a taco.  Basically a metric shit ton of marinated shrimp sizzled in spices and served with a dixie cup of tortilla soup broth, a pile of just-fried tortillas (see what they did there?), a monstrous bag of still-hot tortilla chips, ridiculously fresh Pico de Gallo, and the best green avocado salsa that I’ve ever had.  Commenting on the price might seem insensitive given the harsh economic realities of our trade policies, but rest assured the whole thing was cheap as hell.

Even the corner taco stands had the right idea.  You walk up, sit down, and order a few.  The taco chef (love that phrase) slices a few pieces of pastor from his shawarma skewer and tosses it onto the grill.  A minute later he throws it on a tortilla already deftly dipped in the grease catcher and serves it with plentiful portions of guacamole and grilled onions.  You pile on some salsa as you sit on a stool at the stand and satiate the stretch receptors in your belly.

If that doesn’t quite do the trick, simply ask the gentlemen for a few more and he’ll go through the process again.  Once you’ve had enough, tell him how many you’ve had, pay your tab*, dismount your stool, and confidently walk away, leaving fellow patrons muttering in disbelief over the amount of habanero salsa that damn gringo was able to stomach.

*Tijuana taquerias and carts all seem to operate on the honor system.  Even places that have counters and seating.  Go ask  the dude for two tacos and he’ll just give them to you.  Finish them and ask for two more.  Keep doing it.  Once you’re stuffed, saunter over to the counter (not always close in proximity to the taco guys and always staffed by different people) and tell them how many you’ve had.  They multiply that by a dollar (or 12 pesos, the going rate for tacos these days), you pay, and everyone is happy.  I’m not saying this would work in the Mission (it wouldn’t), but it was still neat.

24 Responses to “Mission Taquerias Need to Step it Up”

  1. Juan says:

    Great post (and I like the second tag).

    I suspect the closet you’ll get to this is the taquero in the front of Taqueria Vallarta on 24th. Best tacos in town.

  2. For a truly great taqueria experience, one needs to head south of the Grape Vine.

    • Andrew Sarkarati says:

      Exhibit B: California Burrito found in San Diego. Carne Asada, guacamole, salsa, and FRENCH FRIES, all wrapped up in a huge tortilla.

  3. wgwrgw says:

    Mexican food is better in Mexico! You heard it here first!

  4. DMZ says:

    Ahhhhh…the sea bass tacos…mmmmm

  5. moderniste says:

    Did the al pastor guy have a pineapple on top of the skewered schwarma-like bbq pork? I was in Tecate, and ate the most sublime al pastor tacos off of a cart where they roasted the meat over a propane heater, and if you asked, they’d flip you a piece of the greasy pineapple which was the most dee-licious amalgamation of sweet, salty, greasy and YUM.

    I ate 4 tacos, and my friend, who only picked at one, got violently ill. Serves him right for not digging in with proper relish!

  6. Gianpaolo says:

    There is a place in the Mission that does exactly what you describe and more. Tortillas heated for every taco. A cornucopia of freshly chopped cilantro, onions, avocado, pico de gallo and salsa verde for you to apply in personal portions to each taco. To top it off, each taco has fresh meat COOKED TO ORDER – no tubs of cooked meat. Eat as many as you want and then, when you are finished, tell the good many how many you’ve eaten and he’ll charge you, no tax.

    So basically, it exists right under your nose – you can’t miss the smell if you’re within a hundred feet.

    But alas, I will not tell you where it is because there are only six seats in this fine establishment and I do not wish to broadcast it to the world.

    Keep looking. I had four tacos there on Sunday and it was divine.

  7. dickinburlingame says:

    Mi Pueblo Market, a chain, in East Palo Alto serves the pastor the same way. Of course this is for former city dwellers living south of SF……

  8. Concerned Guajolote says:

    And the worst fucking thing about all of this is that the people in the current shitty taquerias are all perfectly capable of cooking great Mexican food but have been kneecapped by people who say “this is where you get the best burrito it’s the most authentic.” It breaks my heart to see the guys for example in “Taqueria el Buen Sabor” (it’s anything but) labor over this demented menu of soggy agruras-inducing crap. BTW “pico de gallo” is kind of like “Cinco de mayo” — Mexicans don’t really ever say that or know or care what it might be. They eat it, especially for example on molletes, the breakfast of the gods which is as common in the Mission as a chimchanga in Oaxaca, but they don’t call it that. Just to quantify there are 2800 hits for “pico de gallo” in the .mx domain, referring mostly to a kind of fruit salad, and 2000 in the .co.uk domain; by comparison there are 263,000 hits for “chile en escabeche” in .mx and precisely 1 in .co.uk. “Pico de gallo” is a bit of a gringo shibboleth, not sure why. Anyway it is good to see attention to the severe mexican food shortages in the mission, tacos are not personally where I would put the emphasis (you can kind of get them in spots), but we are really lacking in the following categories, where the percentages are market share/availability:

    Fondas: 20% in Mexico, 0% in Mission
    Tacos: 30% in Mexico, 15% in Mission
    Quesadillas*: 25% in Mexico, 0.0000% in Mission
    Restaurantes: 10% in Mex, 3% in Mission bc of places like Regalito and Poc Chuc
    Puestitos: 15% Mexico, .5% Mission

    Quite a market niche, whoever wants to bring the other 80% of Mexican food to the virgin streets of the Mission.

    *By quesadilla I mean some ingredients wrapped in masa and dropped in a fryer and that has either huitlacoche or flor de calabaza

    • Mission Mistaken says:

      CG, are you married? Or are you as forementioned but willing to have some on the side? Not interested but willing to keep posting, whilst laying beside me on my Cal King and snacking on something you bring over with you?

    • johnny0 says:

      Please oh please start a food cart called “Concerned Quesadilla”? Then again I would eat anything wrapped in masa and deep fried.

    • Concerned Guajolote says:

      MM – Yes, to a Mexican — in fact when I say “mexicans bla bla” what I really mean is “my wife bla bla.” Also yes, yes and yes.

      Johnny0 – I usually feel bad about my own lack of a blog when I read you, also lack of knowledge of google earth, now also lack of fulfillment of lifelong ambition of operating quesadilla stand. Fortunately these are remediable, if it happens soon I’m leaning toward a misspelled English name with extraneous apostrophes and aitches and quotation marks like “Quesadilla’s Elizabeht’s” and a big sign inside with lots of uses of the letter “k”, such as “AKA LAS KEKAS.” The thought, as you can tell, has barely ever crossed my mind.

  9. Mission Mistaken says:

    If even one Marina chick jumps on this string and says “Yummmmmmmy!” I will personally track her down and toss a Jalapeno laced Pie at her.

    That said, great post, and that taco looks fuckin’ YUMMMMMMMMMY!

  10. porkbelly says:

    There once was a time when El Toro was a pretty respectable joint in regard to portions and price. Alas, no more. Tupees and monster SUVs are expensive (ask the owner).

  11. [...] Sarkarati of Mission Mission gets adventurous and checks out taquerias in Tijuana and discovers that, like Indian food in India, it’s waaaaaay better (and cheaper) [...]

  12. [...] Sarkarati of Mission Mission gets adventurous and checks out taquerias in Tijuana and discovers that, like Indian food in India, it’s waaaaaay better (and cheaper) [...]

  13. [...] Sarkarati de Mission Mission se va de aventurero a Tijuana para probar las taquerías y descubrió que, como la comida india en la India, es muuuucho mejor (y más barata) que [...]

  14. Yes, taquerías throughout Mexico operate on the honor system. It’s both functional and traditional. Chilangos (our equivalent of New Yorkers or Angelenos) joke about cheating a taquero with a “comida corrida” (dine’n'dash), but that’s about as classy as stealing from the church poor-box. Taquerías turn a good profit because everyone honors the system.

    Shawarma must have been invented by a Turkish shepherd. Tacos “al pastor” (“the way shepherds make them”) use carne adobada that has been roasted on a spit. They bear a passing resemblance to shawarma except that they are haraam – the meat is pork.

    Mexican adobo (as distinguished from the adobos of Spain, Cuba, and the Philippines) is a marinade made of spices, dried chiles, annatto paste, and citrus juice. Try it the next time you fire up your Weber.

    To make tacos al pastor, cheap cuts of pork are sliced thin and marinated in adobo for about a day, then they are assembled on the rotisserie spit shawarma-fashion. (A spit for shawarma tends to weigh about three times more than one bearing carne adobada.) The end-cap, which shepherds used to keep the meat from sliding off the spit and which is no longer obligatory, might be either half an onion or the bottom part of a pineapple. Fat that renders from the spit is cached and used to fry the tortillas. The taquero will shave off the crispier bits as the tacos are requested; if demand is hotter than his flame, he will finish his shavings on the grill before making them up into tacos.

    Ordering such a taco “con todo” means you want the taquero to make it up with minced raw onion, chopped cilantro, a boiled sauce of chile de árbol (similar to Thai or Chinese chiles), and a thin guacamole. Otherwise you might specify what he should omit or go light on. It is unlikely that you should need to ask for extra this or extra that because the honor system works both ways – a good taquero always gives full measure.

    Saludos desde dónde empieza la patria.

    • Concerned Guajolote says:

      There is a long-standing and somewhat mysterious taquero v gyrero debate. I was discussing “Truly Mediterranean” (local falafel and kebab shop) with a guy from Saudi Arabia the other day and at one point he confessed “actually, that’s all really Turkish food.” Even the Greeks seem to admit this, while for example claiming that Greek coffee, which is finely ground unfiltered coffee, has nothing whatsoever to do with Turkish coffee. (BTW, in Greece pork is dominant, shawarma is an Arabization of Turkish doner kebab, which diffused West as well as South, and most Lebanese in Mexico are Greek rite Christians.) The internet seems to think “al pastor” is a descendant of the middle eastern technique — I am curious if you are willing to take this like a Greek or if you believe the al pastor/shawarma similarity is a coincidence?

      I am somewhat inclined to agree with the independent Mexican invention theory even if you could show some powerful Lebanese genealogy because the Lebanese-Mexicans have a history of adopting something pretty close to whatever they were used to and taking over an existing Mexican name and product. (IE, there may have been something called al pastor that was pretty similar to what eventually wound up on a middle eastern style spit.) Perfect case in point is jocoque — you can still get the original thing in Jalisco and probably around there but for 90% of at least chilangos it now means straight up Labne/Kefir cheese and is thought of by them as an Arab food. There is probably some bitter commenter somewhere in Veracruz who remembers the “old” “authentic” taco al pastor before the Arabs came and put it on that atrocious contraption — a theory, at least.

  15. a9 says:

    Stay in tijuana. This blog has really gone down in quality.

  16. Melanie says:

    oh man, there isn’t a day that goes by that i don’t dream of the al pastor tacos at tacos el gordo in tijuana.

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  18. [...] when our band LA CORDE went down to play a show in Tijuana, we had the pleasure of hanging out with our friend Jason, a former San Franciscan who’s [...]

  19. [...] top billing goes to the Tacos al Vapor, which are the closest thing you’ll find to the tacos served in Tijuana.  Likewise, a keen sense of knowing your audience is demonstrated by the deft placement of (what [...]

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