Taco Takedown: Where To Get The Good Stuff
Where To Get The Good Stuff
By Julia Kitlinski-Hong
Photography by Jessica Freels
It’s Mexico’s defining dish: tortillas folded or rolled around fillings that vary by region. One constant is that it’s a culinary favorite. We’re lucky to live in a county rich in diverse cuisines and plenty of places to eat them. When it comes to tacos, you can indulge at authentic hole-in-the-wall taquerias or slick downtown restaurants. Whatever kind of taco tickles your taste buds, here’s a list to satisfy your cravings.
TAQUERIA LOS GALLOS EXPRESS
The expertly marinated al pastor taco delights whether drizzled with smoky salsa roja in a soft taco or devoured in a crispy shell with a generous helping of guacamole and sour cream. The help-yourself salsa bar in the back features homemade salsas, including an incredibly fresh pico de gallo. For late night cravings, Los Gallos Express is the place to go—open until 1a.m. weeknights and 2p.m. on weekends. 1974 Contra Costa Blvd, Pleasant Hill, (925) 798-0575.
TORTILLERIA EL MOLINO
This neighborhood favorite gets raves for its savory carne
asada tacos on tortillas made from scratch. The carnitas tacos are also crowd
pleasers blending soft and crispy pork in each flavorful bite. Bags of fresh
tortillas, still warm from the pan, are ready to take home. Finish your meal on
a sweet note with a heavenly bionicos—mixed
fruit cup bathed in cream and topped with dried coconut, granola and nuts. 1500 Monument Blvd., Suite F1, Concord, (925)
687-7066. 2228 Oak Grove Road
Walnut Creek, CA 94598 (925) 295-0266
This tiny taqueria touts soft shell carnitas tacos made with tender slow-cooked pork, cilantro, diced onions and mild salsa verde. For vegetarians, the crispy-shelled potato taco tantalizes; order it with a side of refried beans. 607 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill, (925) 944-9188.
Most of the county’s Mexican restaurants are meat centric, but this cozy spot has plenty of veggie options that stand out. Indulgent fillings like potato or poblano (a mild chili pepper) are seasoned with a signature blend of spices and wrapped in fresh corn tortillas. Meat-lovers devour the locally sourced, all natural chicken and beef tacos. This is the go-to spot for anyone looking for a healthier twist on a taco.
1300 Contra Costa Blvd #12, Pleasant Hill, (925) 682-4444.
CINCO DE MAYO
This small, authentic downtown taqueria, popular for its seafood and good prices, attracts an eclectic mix of diners. They also serve up some seriously good fish tacos. Grilled or fried they come on a plate with refried beans and rice. Tacos—chicken, beef, pork, or veggie, are only $2—go ahead have another. Chips and salsa complete the meal. 1372 Locust Street, Walnut Creek, (925) 954-1050.
FUEGO TEQUILA GRILL
Much of the produce here is organic; the chicken is free-range and the beef is grass-fed. Tequila-lime marinated meats, like the arrachera steak, come finished with a drizzle of chipotle mayo. Wash your food down with a Phoenix Fuego Margarita—Patron tequila, pineapple juice, sweet & sour mix, and muddled habanero. 1359 Locust Street, Walnut Creek, (925)891-4023.
A time honored tradition of Mexico, grilled, stuffed, and tortilla wrapped tacos are a three bite delight. Maria Maria balances spice and sweetness in its pineapple carnitas tacos. Grilled shrimp tacos come smothered in a heavenly chipotle cream sauce. They taste even better devoured on the Creekside patio with a big, fat margarita. 1470 N. Broadway, WC, (925) 946-1010.
This Lafayette popular hangout since attracting generations of locals for food and fun since 1947. Baskets of fresh tortilla chips are served with salsa and a decadent cheese dip. Cadillac margaritas quench the thirst and tacos take on all kinds of twists: halibut battered and fried, marinated steak, shredded beef, or grilled chicken topped with melted cheese and bell peppers. Plates come piled with refried, pinto or black beans and Mexican rice. Enjoy your meal inside the spacious dining room, or out back on the patio. 3339 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-2345.
MERCADO DEL SOL
Deeply-seasoned lamb tacos lure locals into this family-owned taqueria. The tender meat is heaped on tortillas and finished with freshly cut cilantro, diced onions and a touch of fiery salsa roja. All meals begin with fresh tortilla chips and salsas ranging from mild to scorching. If you eat inside, the servers check on you as you inhale your meal— a rarity in the world of takeout taquerias. 1450 Monument Blvd., Concord, (925) 676-8837.
Dating to the 18th century, it’s believed Mexican silver miners invented the taco, Mexican Americans in the Southwest reinvented it, and Taco Bell gave it a ubiquitous shell. For a long time taquerías were found only in local neighborhoods, but when women joined the working class in Mexico City, they brought with them delicious regional fare. Immigrants who came to the US from Mexico adapted to the ingredients available here incorporating hamburger meat, cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce and tomato into their diet.
MASA AND MEATS
Thick dough made from grinding and cooking dried corn, masa, is a staple for making tacos. Shells are pounded and pressed into tortillas then filled with a dizzying array of meats. Here’s a cheat sheet to the meats on a taco shop menu: carne asada-grilled steak; pollo asado-grilled chicken; al pastor-spit-roasted pork; carnitas-braised pork; chorizo-sausage. For the adventurous: tripita-tripe; tripas-small intestines; buche-pork stomach; lengua-beef tongue; cabeza-head meat.
Decadent and delicious, nothing screams Mexican food like refried beans. Pinto beans are simmered in a pot, mashed into a paste, and for the grand finale, fried with lard. Refried beans traditionally accompany a large meal or play a supporting role on a plate of tacos. They became popular in the U.S. after appearing in burritos and addictive seven-layer dips.
A good salsa is the key to a good taco, but picking which one to drizzle on top depends on how much heat you can take. Most taco shops serve these standards: salsa roja (red sauce)-cooked tomato, chili pepper, garlic, onion and cilantro; salsa verde (green sauce)-cooked tomatillo, jalapeno, onion, and cilantro; pico de gallo (also known as salsa fresca) - chunky raw tomato, jalapeno, cilantro, onion, and lime juice; avocado salsa-tomatillo, jalapeno, avocado, garlic and cilantro. Want it really hot? Ask for some habanero sauce.
WHAT’S FOR DINNER? RUN THE VEGETABLES WITH THIS ONE
Ready to make your own traditional tacos? Head to Concord where you’ll find Mexican markets brimming with authentic ingredients and fresh produce. A favorite is Las Montanas Supermarket on Willow Pass stocked with all everything you need for a tasty meal. Pick up some limes, cilantro, onions, salsa, tortillas and high-quality meat from the butcher. Delicious pan dulce comes piping hot out of the bakery’s oven, tortillas are made fresh, and jars of pork rinds line the counter. On your way out, grab a few tacos at the taqueria in the front-they’re as delicious as they smell.