Thursday, August 20, 1998
I like gritty taquerias. I want cheap food, language barriers to overcome in placing my order, some strange hunk of beast cooking in the pot on the stove, and a remarkable lack of marketing savvy or thought given to food presentation. I want to be able to order tacos made with tongue and brain >(lengua y cabeza), not that I do. I want little or no restaurant ambiance, and prefer taquerias consisting of a counter and small kitchen in the back of a Latino market.
Now that you understand my perspective, let''s talk taquerias.
My love of authentic, even dingy, taquerias developed during regular forays into Mexico, camping out and living on nothing but beer and fish tacos: yummy logs of fried fish surrounded by salsa, cabbage and corn tortillas that are just 50 cents each.
I remember the moment that Americanized Mexican food was forever ruined for me: filled with tres tacos de pescado y dos cervezas and a sense of euphoric contentment, speaking pidgin Spanish with the stoic taco man at a simple roadside taco stand just outside Ensenada.
Back in the States, what I knew as Mexican food was no longer good enough. No longer could I suffer the old standard beans-rice-entree combo plate fare, dished out by gringas in fiesta dresses in converted Denny''s restaurants. Suddenly, Taco Bell began to taste like, well, Taco Bell.
Every town in California has Mexican food restaurants, and many even have a good selection of low cost taquerias, but Monterey County''s thriving Chicano population and the insular quality of many local Spanish-speaking communities have given birth to some of the best taquerias I''ve found.
They are places based on the essential idea that any part of any animal, cooked properly with just the right seasonings, combined with fresh vegetables diced into a salsa and placed in a tortilla, can result in a filling meal that is both fantastic and affordable.
From the taqueria counters in the La Princesa, El Rancho and Latino Markets (in East Salinas, Marina and Seaside, respectively) to the exquisite hole-in-the-wall delectability of Papa Chuy''s in Marina and Seaside, it''s real Mexican food prepared by real Mexicans, the perfect staple for gringos low on cash but high on culinary desire.
And, of course, college students epitomize the pauper who still demands cheap, filling, comfort food on the fly. Below, in alphabetical order, is a partial list that is varied, but just a beginning. Properly applied, students'' youthful sense of adventure can allow them to venture into the nooks and crannies of East Salinas and similar fertile ground for taquerias, and to find hidden treasures all their own.
El Migueleno, 1066 Broadway Ave., Seaside, 899-2199. El Salvador meets Monterey Peninsula. Friendly, friendly service...and great camarones (shrimp) dishes.
El Rancho Market, 346 Reservation Rd., Marina, 384-5151. Fat, meaty burritos for just three bucks, served from a butcher''s counter filled with a wide variety of meats. With this place, Papa Chuy''s and Sarita''s, Marina residents are sitting pretty.
Garcia''s Taqueria, in the Latino Market, 1022 Broadway Ave., Seaside, 394-7294. This was the first place I tried a tongue taco, mostly for the experience, and I loved it! Actually, I love everything I''ve had here, and the great, gritty feel of the authentic Mexican spot--albeit one with a counter guy who speaks English, a helpful addition for customers whose espa¤ol es muy mal.
Gutierrezy Rico, 61 Sherwood Dr., Salinas, 424-8382. This is the real thing, one of the only reasons many uppity Peninsula residents ever venture into Salinas. There are even great full color pictures to whet your appetite and help make your selection. Although not quite typical taqueria fare, I must recommend the camarones with garlic butter. Mmmmm.
La Princesa Market, 516 East Alisal St., Salinas, 754-1317. Opened recently in the back of this Mexican market, the taqueria has everything you need to leave full and happy without spending much money. Try the tostadas, they''re fantastic. You''ll need to know at least a little Spanish to eat here.
Mi Casita Taqueria, 638 Wave St., Monterey, 655-4419. Although it''s right in the heart of Cannery Row commercialism, Mi Casita Taqueria is an authentic outlet for great Mexican food, home of the best carne asada burrito around. They also have free chips and a great salsa bar.
Michael''s Grill and Taqueria, 197 Country Club Gate, Pacific Grove, 647-8654. Here''s a hopping joint that has fresh burritos. It''s small, it''s quaint, it''s worthy.
Mi Tierra de Monterey, 481 Alvarado St., Monterey, 647-9368. It''s the real thing, and a thing that is available both in the restaurant and its Salinas counterpart, and from the Salinas farmers markets on Wednesdays. Yummy stuff.
Papa Chanos, 462 Alvarado St., Monterey, 646-9587. Sure, they''re gringo burritos served in an Americanized atmosphere, but they still taste good. And as long as you''re not going for authentically gritty anyway, eat healthy and order a vegetarian burrito.
Papa Chuy''s Taco Shop, 1760 Fremont Blvd., Seaside, 393-1610; 3038 Del Monte Blvd., Marina, 884-9545. My personal favorite, a place I visit at least twice a week for fish tacos straight out of Mexico (see above description). The Marina stand even has a drive-through, which doesn''t do much for the ambiance, but adds greatly to the convenience. The Seaside store has excellent menudo on weekend mornings.
Peppers Mexicali Cafe, 170 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove, 373-6892. What is in Peppers'' seafood tacos that is so addictive? One of the most popular dishes in one of the most popular Mexican restaurants, the fresh seafood tacos are a fantastic meal.
Pollo Rey, 431 Tyler St., Monterey, 333-1500. Finding a delicious mole sauce seems harder than it should in this neck of the woods, so the tasty chicken mole burrito at Pollo Rey is a treat if you want fast, cheap food. It''s not a local company or my favorite kind of taqueria, but good eats are good eats.
Sarita''s, 19448 Fremont Blvd., Seaside, 394-4407; 265 Reservation Road, Marina, 384-1318. This small restaurant in Seaside is just moving to tables from being a stool-and-counter taqueria. Predictable beef, chicken, cheese, chile (colorado, verde) burritos. Reasonable portions, prices. Very gringo-accessible without being embarrassing (like Papa Chanos).
Taqueria Del Mar, 530 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey, 372-7887. The local catch is calamari and here the squid burrito or squid tostada are easy winners. It''s a cozy lunch and dinner spot and a great place to practice your Spanish while ordering, although you can definitely sneak by with just English.
Taqueria Del Valle, 19 E. Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, 659-1373. Oversized and scrumptious, with some of the freshest guacamole this side of the border. Their chicken burrito is the bomb.
TurtleBay Taqueria, 1301 Fremont St. (at the corner of Trinity Avenue), Seaside, 899-1010. OK, so this well-scrubbed place doesn''t exactly fit my "gritty taqueria" desires, but it''s still pretty damn good, and a lunchtime staple for everyone here at Coast Weekly. Fresh seafood tacos and burritos on a nice patio--what else could you want?
Well, I could have gone on and on and on. The number of taquerias in this great county could chew up the rest of the section. Your job: find them all, or just one that suits your style and fancy. Adios. cw