A Little Personal History
It wasn’t always tacos.
I remember very little about my early childhood in McAllen, Texas. Lizards on the window screen. Snakes under the Christmas tree. Gazing from our back steps at the periodic floods with brown water that looked like it stretched to the sky. And I remember the tortillas. My babysitter Minerva (“Minnie”) would sit me down on the front bench of her pickup and I’d eat buttered home-made tortillas by the fistful.
My family moved to Toppenish in 1971 and since then Mexican food has been at the center of so many joyful memories. The chile verde at Vela’s restaurant in Wapato, where we’d always hope to stop on the way home from a trip to the big city (Yakima). The water cooler filled with ceviche de camaron y pescado that my teammates Abdias and Millones lugged on to the field after a quarterfinal win in the Mexican soccer league. (My team was proudly sponsored by Chencho’s Mexican Restaurant, where my Dad swore by the arroz con pollo). Digging up the chivo (roasted goat) that cooked overnight in buried coals at the Esquivel home on the Fourth of July.
In my early teens I became a devotee of barbacoa (slow braised and marinated beef, usually brisket or chuck roast). In retrospect I realize it was not a merit-based affliction, but rather the calculated product of my limited budget, my insatiable teenaged appetite, and a palate that was starting to lean towards the outrageous. Those impulses one day led me to the cinder-block laundromat on the corner of South G and East Toppenish Ave. where you could buy barbacoa–para-llevar. The door to the kitchen was one of those double-hung jobs where the top half of the door was laced with metal bars painted black. They’d cut the bars at the bottom so you could hand them your four bucks and they’d slide back a Styrofoam container filled with a quart of shredded beef that was so steeped in smoke-dried peppers that it was nearly black.
The barbacoa at El Ranchito in Zillah was a deeper tinge of red and the vinegar would tussle with the peppers in the back of your throat. The acid from the vinegar disintegrated the sinew, set the fat free, and helped cut through the industrial doses of lard in the refried beans – and I say that with nothing but adoration. To get to El Ranchito we’d cross the Yakima River and drive past The Church of God, Zillah, which cracked us up every time. On the way home we’d discuss why in the world El Ranchito had a glass cage that sometimes was full of monkeys and was other times empty. We cheerfully debated what monkey might taste like, and then we quietly wondered whether perhaps we already knew.
The best food, of course, is made in peoples’ homes. I’ve had carnitas (slow cooked pork shoulder) out of a crock-pot at a wedding reception in the Wapato civic center that blew my mind. I’ve had tamales from a Sunday potluck at Saint Aloysius Catholic Church that should be enshrined. But for day-in and day-out excellence, the award has to go to Olivia Aguirre.
Olivia had thirteen children, and her youngest, Juan Pablo, was my best friend. If I was lucky Juan would invite me over on a Friday night to have dinner and watch Kolchak: The Night Stalker on t.v. Olivia had a laugh that you could hear for miles and made everything feel right in the world, and I suppose that’s why all of her kids thought they were stand-up comedians. She would stand over the stove laughing at the stories being perpetrated by her kids, her hands going a hundred miles an hour to make enough fresh tortillas to feed the small army of kids, grandkids, and the inevitable drop-ins from D Street assembled in her home. The kitchen table always seemed to have bottomless bowls of frijoles refritos and sopa de arroz and the tortillas never stopped coming.
Over time Olivia’s seven sons had adopted the same eating technique – they’d lean over the plate of food, with a tortilla in one hand (used in lieu of a fork to pick up food and turn each bite into a mini-taco) and a roasted jalapeno in the other. They’d conspicuously sample the jalapeno between mouthfuls to season the meal. No one ever admitted to it, but I suspected they were keeping score over who ate the most peppers and who exhibited the least discomfort. For a freckled Irish kid it was big fun. It was at the Aguirres’ that I had my first mole sauce, my first menudo (tripe soup, every Sunday), and my first plateful of lengua (beef tongue). Jose Luis had me convinced that after a couple of hours the lengua would start wiggling around trying to lick the inside of my stomach and I swear that night I felt it happen.
My late teens and early twenties were the torta years. In the late 1980s I spent some time on the west coast of Mexico, living alternately in a hammock and a 1964 Dodge Dart, surviving on bolillos that we’d buy at the local panadería and loaded with canned beans and whatever vegetables and fish we could barter for on the beach that day. If we made it through the week with enough budget left over we’d splurge on a torta de jamón y huevo for breakfast and wash it down the a licuado de fresa y plátano.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1990 that I fell in love with tacos. And by tacos, I mean the Michoacan-style version, just a small handful of seasoned meat cradled in soft masa-tortillas with a sprinkle of raw onion and fresh cilantro. The things hip restaurateurs now call “street tacos”. Even with early memories of Texas and a lifetime in Toppenish my idea of a taco had always been a hardened (stale), pre-formed “tortilla” shell filled ground beef that had been seasoned with cumin, chili powder, and that thing that destroys your soul from the inside.
All of that changed with a lunchtime visit to La Fogata in Sunnyside. I was working in Granger that summer and a group of enlightened co-workers convinced me to drive all the way to Sunnyside for lunch. It was payday so I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu – tacos al carbón for $5.99. They came with rice and beans and a small mountain of carmelized onions and everything I knew about tacos changed right there. The idea of tacos as an elevated culinary option was a jarring revelation.
Later that same summer I discovered my first real taco van. I had probably driven past them over the years but I’m guessing they just didn’t register until after the La Fogata experience. It was parked on East Toppenish Ave, just west of D street, between the castle church and the car wash. I’d show up after work in my paisley tie and order a torta de asada and three tacos de pastor. (I was young). As the summer wore on I made my way through everything on the menu. My flirtation with sopitos lasted barely a week – just too delicate for me. And I figured out pretty quickly that tripa in a corn tortilla lacked the romance I remembered in Olivia’s menudo. I ate a lot of lengua because it felt adventurous and edgy, and I’d periodically goad myself into ordering sesos (cow brains), which were somehow both creamy and grainy at the same time and for me held an exotic appeal. [I stopped cold with the sesos after the one-and-only case of Mad Cow Disease in the USA was traced back to Mabton]. But I inevitably gravitated back to some variation of pork – carnitas, pastor or adobada – on a corn tortilla. A burrito was the right call if I needed to eat in the car, and I’d still go for a torta if I was really hungry, but by fall I was pretty consistently ordering a plate of 6 assorted tacos and enjoying them at a picnic table with a jar of pickled carrots and plastic squirt bottles of green and red salsa. It was a pretty awesome summer.
Note: When I went back to school in the fall I learned that the taco van had been busted by the DEA as the primary distribution point for a west coast heroin ring. Apparently they’d ship the heroin up the coast from Mexico/California and then from the taco van in Toppenish they’d ship it west to Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia and east to Spokane and into Idaho and Montana. Toppenish was a pretty rough place back then. My work wardrobe at the time was primarily composed of items that I’d purchased at Value Village or that I’d borrowed from my Dad, so I figure somewhere in the DEA archives there are hours of footage of a curly-haired 23 year-old in pleated khakis and an oxford button-down wearing ties from the 1960s, visiting the west coast’s largest heroin distribution point each day, and then unhurriedly sampling every inch of the taco van’s grease-board menu.
I’ve been living and working in Yakima since 1992. I haven’t eaten at every Mexican restaurant in town but I’ve made a pretty good run at it. I’ve sat on benches and in plastic chairs at establishments from east Fruitvale all the way to Parker (remember Marias?!). I’ve chased rumors of good tacos up and down the Valley, visiting dozens of vans, buses and mini-marts from Mabton to Tieton. And I’m consistently and happily amazed that something so simple can taste so unbelievably good in so many different iterations. It’s always good. And sometimes it’s magic.
The Rooted women know about my weaknesses and they asked me to write a piece on the best tacos in the City of Yakima. The best? Sorry, I’m the wrong guy for such an assignment for two reasons. First, there are still dozens of places I’ve never been, and it would be disrespectful for me to award any medals when I haven’t seen all of the contestants. More importantly, however, I’m just not a very discerning taco-eater. The best taco I ever ate is usually the most recent taco I just ate. Each bite somehow feels like a surprise and a wonder and I just feel lucky to be there. I’ve had a few bad tacos, sure . If it smells like roadkill and tastes like a salt lick then you should probably move on, I’ve learned. Also, beware of chicken that smells like bleach. But otherwise? Every taco I’ve ever eaten falls somewhere between excellent and sublime.
So what I volunteered to do instead was grab a couple of friends and go find some awesome tacos and then write about it. My hope is that if you read this article that you’ll give it shot too, and when you find something that you love you can drop the Rooted women a note so that the rest of us can discover it too! Ganar-ganar!
Junior Cuevas is a talker. Most high-volume talkers like to talk about themselves, but with Junior virtually every sentence that comes out of his mouth is a question. After 10 minutes with Junior he’ll likely know more about you than people you’ve known your entire lifetime, and he’ll enthusiastically identify a half-dozen areas of common interest that will convince you that you should be best friends. Junior is a guy who walks into a taco establishment and by the time he leaves the proprietor is inevitably calling him “mijo”. He’s relentlessly upbeat, he looks for the good in everyone and anything and politely refuses to focus his energy on anything negative. Great guy to hang out with in general, and the perfect guy to bring along on a three-hour taco tour.
Mathias Gargus makes an intimidating first impression. You immediately wonder if he’s been in prison, and you know that if he was he’d be immediately appointed a gang chieftain and nicknamed Merlin. His head is shaved unnervingly clean, his graying goatee is borderline diabolical, and his squinting glare suggests he knows exactly what you’re up to. He’s got a 55-gallon chest that arrives several seconds before the rest of him. His pickup has a custom gun rack and its own zip code. So the fact that Mathias turns out to be a kind and light-hearted man comes as a significant relief. And when he turns on his 175 dB truck stereo and you learn that it’s pre-tuned to NPR, well, you start to understand that he’s a man with a lot more depth and nuance than his first impression would suggest. When he speaks it’s in a perpetually conspiratorial stage whisper, though he tends to abruptly change timbre and cadence so that one moment he sounds like Cheech Marin and the next like Dick Cheney. When he talks about his passion for tacos it feels like he’s letting you in on an exciting secret that’ll change your life forever. Mathias has worked in the agriculture industry his entire life, and for him tacos are an evolving form of art being crafted by irrepressibly hard-working craftspeople who love what they do. A perfect taco practically moves him to tears, and that’s exactly the kind of guy I want to hang out with on a day like today.
A Twelve Taco Lunch
1. Los Primos #2
We started at Los Primos #2, known to some locals as the “Delaney’s Lost Sock Van”. (What is it about great Mexican food and laundromats?) Los Primos #2 is one of the few vans in the area where the purveyors are from Jalisco. Tacos estilo Jalisco our man told us, the difference being in the grilling apparatus and technique. We sampled the asada (grilled skirt or flank steak), the adobada (marinated pork), and the cabeza (which we’ll optimistically call beef cheeks).
The tortillas came from a bag but they were sizzled up nice and soft on the grill. Fresh and inviting salsa selection, including (personal bias alert) shredded cabbage and gallons of pickled carrots. Most taco vans will offer a bowl of raw onions and cilantro, but here the tacos come with handfuls of onions grilled to translucency.
Our pick: The cabeza tacos were divine. Highly recommended.
If you love Mexican food then Salsitas hasn’t been a secret for a long time. It’s been at the corner of Fair and Pacific Avenues (just NW of the Sundome) for 24 years and I’ve long been on record as saying it makes the best tortas de adobada on planet earth. It’s fun to grab a seat on the weekend and watch the locals walk in with an empty container and walk out with a gallon of menudo. My family’s idea of big fun has been to buy an armful of tacos and tortas from Salsitas and then head out to Bale Breaker for a weekend picnic. Tacos, beer, hula hoops and cornhole. Really nothing better.
If you’ve not been before then don’t be put off by the signage. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of spray-painting “Salsita” in cursive lettering made out of a severed colon, but I personally think it’s pure genius.
Junior introduced himself to the owner, Don Patricio, and after about 90 seconds he’d been invited behind the counter to watch them make tortillas. By the time we left, Junior had discovered that he and Don Patricio were related – el primo de mi tio! said Junior proudly. Junior laughed upon learning that Don Patricio called his uncle Flaco, and I watched him tuck that away for use at a future family gathering.
We had the adobada, the lengua and the carnitas. The corn tortillas are made by hand with each order. The tacos are presented starkly on their own, with the invitation to dress them up on the festive salsa counter.
Because Junior was family, however, Don Patricio would not let us leave without sampling the dish that he claims as his signature: The fried quesadilla. It’s a delicate little pastry stuffed with cotija cheese and dressed with crema and lechuga. It was lovely and worth its own visit.
3. Tacos El Rey
When I first moved back to Yakima in 1992 I spent a lot of time around Nob Hill and South 6th Street. Why? Duh, the tacos. The converted bus with the make-shift lean-to at the iconic Taqueria Jaliciense appealed perfectly to my sense of place and it proved to be a satellite for others who hoped to replicate its success. Over the years a half-dozen vans parked amongst the goat-heads on the nearby empty lots, making somewhat of a stuttered food court for folks who were willing to sit in a dusty field of weed and rocks in search of a perfect taco.
About a block north on 6th street there sits a place called Salvador’s Auto Repair. It looks exactly liked you’d expect of an auto repair place called Salvador’s, which is to say, gritty, authentic, and bad-ass. The place you’d go when nobody else in town has any idea what to do about your busted transmission.
When I first went there in the early 90s there was a tiny trailer in Salvador’s parking lot that served tacos out of the window. They had a few plastic tables and a plastic tarp supported by 2x4s to shield the customers from the sun.
The van was owned by a fellow named Mario Lopez and he was eventually able to build a full-on restaurant called Tacos el Rey and it’s still nestled on the frontage of 6th Avenue in front of Salvador’s. The model has been so successful that his brothers and family have opened Tacos el Rey in 10 locations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
When we arrived the special was fish tacos so we gave those a try. The hand-made tortillas were perfect and right off the grill, the grilled fish was fresh and light, and it came with a sauce that was tart and bright. Definitely a successful dish and recommended for everyone.
But the winner on this day was the tacos de carnitas. Slow cooked pork shoulder flavored with what I’m guessing was a reduced tomatillo sauce, it tasted so good it felt illegal. We’ll be coming back for more of these.
4. Tacos De Uruapan
Tacos de Uruapan is an unassuming cluster of picnic tables under a tarp next to a grill. Old school and authentic. It’s located in the parking lot of a little track mall just north of Nob Hill and Fair Avenues.
We tried the asada and the barbacoa and both were flavor bombs. But while the name of the establishment is Tacos de Uruapan, we couldn’t help but notice that most of the folks who went there had the quesadillas. The quesadilla at Salsitas was a quaint and dainty item, a polite snack to have with your meal. Here? The quesadillas were as big as Mathias’s forearm, packed with meat and cheese and then graciously stuffed with cabbage and peppers and whatever else you please from the kind person at the salsa counter. I’m partial to tacos, but I’m definitely making a special trip back to this place for the quesadillas.
5. El Parrillon Loco De Tom and Jerry
Mercado de Yakima is located on 1st Ave, across the street from where Black Angus used to be. At the far east end of the building there is an outdoor grill with spatchcocked chickens roasting shoulder-to-shoulder over mesquite coals. There is a sign over the adjacent doorway that boasts two mustachioed chefs emerging from respective halves of a cracked egg, which appears to have been recently hatched from a cartoonish chicken that has been harpooned by a pair of lips (?). It’s called El Parrillon Loco de Tom and Jerry. Which loosely translated I think means Thomas’ and Geraldo’s crazy huge grill!
Don’t let the sign distract you. The grilled chicken itself is world class. Texture, moisture, depth of flavor, it’s got everything you could possibly want from a grilled bird. We’re told that the food is prepared estilo Sinaloa and it’d hold its own in any barbeque contest anywhere.
But we were here for the Tacos al Hambre. Tacos al Hambre are entire plates of playfully named taco dishes with curious mixtures of meats, cheese, pineapple (with the pastor), peppers, and onions. The dish is served with six freshly made corn tortillas festooned across a paper plate and loaded with what’s got to be a half pound of fixings. Oh, you’d like Tacos al Hambre del Pingüino? Here comes a plate with jamón, asada, cebolla, queso y tocino. We thought about the Pachucon and the Quemevez, but settled on Canibalito, which, we’re pretty sure, included every single thing in the kitchen.
Once you get past the chefs-in-an-eggshell and the fact that the tacos are named after penguins and cannibals the food is really spectacular and a must-do for anyone who really loves tacos. I encourage you to stop in here with a big group of friends and sample them all.
6. Antojitos Los Michoacanos
This little gem was the perfect ending to our quest for awesome tacos.
When you walk into the old 2nd Street Market at the corner of Walnut and 2nd Street you wonder if maybe the Taqueria sign out front is outdated. It is still a functioning bodega, where you can buy 50 lb bags of beans, chayotes, and no less than four varieties of plátanos. [Note to self: Next rooted article needs to include some plátanos fritos]. We then noticed a small counter and menu in the back corner and headed back to take a look. We chatted with the cook, a delightful woman from Morelia named Araceli. She was happy to serve us anything on the menu, which included chivo (goat) and borrego (lamb), but she encouraged us to ask for anything we’d like and she’d make it for us.
We ordered tacos of chorizo, lomo (shredded and marinated pork), asada, and just to mix things up Mathias asked for camarón (shrimp).
Araceli didn’t blink. She is running a one-woman show so it took a minute but soon enough she had the full order in front of us. To top off the experience we ordered some jugo de mango and piping hot cup of instant coffee. I realize the force of nostalgia sometimes overpowers any objective assessment of quality, but I’ve got to say, that Nescafe was awesome. The lomo (we tried it with red sauce on Araceli’s recommendation) was just perfect for my palate, a vinegary and peppery sludge of pork that just disintegrates in your mouth. The camarónes were cooked crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside with just the right mix of citrus and heat. The array of salsas (including a wonderfully piquant guacamole and an obscenely viscous chipotle) was a nice surprise and magnified everything we ate.
Araceli proudly gave us business cards and told us about the fruit cups she makes with piña jícama and mango and we’re definitely coming back for those. It was great food made with pride by someone who loves what she does, and for each of us it was that little bit of magic that only happens when you are able to stray from your daily routine and try something new.
We told Araceli we’d be back and that we’d gladly send others her way. She smiled wide, nodded thankfully to Mathias and me, then waved at Junior and said “Adios mijo!”.
Brendan Monahan is an amateur fortune-teller, a harmless fabulist, and loves a good game of cornhole. He’d love it if you could tell him where to find some great tacos!