Mexican All Over the Map

Posted on August 5, 2011 – 9:49 PM | by Admin
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By Becky Grunewald  Photos by Scott Duncan & Becky Grunewald

One of the great things about Sacramento’s diverse population is that we have ethnic enclaves that are big enough to have reached the tipping point at which you get the really interesting food. We don’t just have one or two pho restaurants in town, we have probably a hundred of them, and better still, we also have places where we can wrap up nem nuong, nibble on a blood cube in a bowl of bun bo hue, and even slurp a frosty nuoc mia to wash it all down. 

Similarly, we don’t have merely a smattering of taco and burrito choices.  Instead, many different regions of Mexico are represented at area restaurants, some of which are proudly proclaimed in the name of the restaurant  (e.g, Mariscos Mazatlan, El Michoacano 2), some only obvious to the knowledgeable or the interested. 

One business that says it loud and proud is Tacos Sinaloense, a taco truck that is always parked on Fruitridge and 44th street (across from the overpriced, yet sometimes good Eco Thrift).  Very sadly, it does not offer smoked marlin tacos, a delicacy that seems restricted to the Sinaloan city of Mazatlan for reasons unknown. In fact, the only dish that seems unusual (and perhaps regional) is the beef brain taco and I’m sorry, dear readers, but neural tissue is one of the few places I draw the line with food.  I believe this may be the only place to get brain tacos in Sacramento, but I beg you to correct me if I’m wrong, and please, let me know how they are.

Shrimp season in Mazatlan is a time of wonderful abundance; on every street corner a seller is perched with a bucket of sweet shrimp fresh from the sea.  The shrimp in the taco at Tacos Sinaloense obviously wasn’t cavorting mere hours before I ate it, but it didn’t conjure up images of an antibiotic-laden Southeast Asian shrimp farm either.  Plump pieces of shrimp are dressed simply with mild pico de gallo and wrapped with two small, thick corn tortillas that are sautéed (not deep fried) in oil, thereby awakening the corn taste.  The meaty cubes of fresh-fried fish in the fish taco are browned and crisped on the edges; the al pastor is tender but unremarkable. 

Tequila Museo Mayahuel doesn’t endeavor to represent just one region of Mexico; the menu says that Chef Ramiro Alarcón introduces a “palette of memorable authentic flavors” from all over Mexico, including the Yucatecan specialty cochinita pibil. 

Everything about Tequila Museo Mayahuel, open on the K Street mall since April, screams “high concept” when you walk in.  There’s the picture of your oh-so-serious “tequila maestro” posed with a champagne flute of tequila.  There’s the name of the Chef painted onto the wall.  There’s the, um, Facebook quote printed on the menus?  Criminy. 

Firmly brushing all that aside, there is much to like about Mayahuel.  The courteous bartender, Oscar, presented the tequila tasting of one blanco, one reposado, and one añejo tequila along with helpful explanations; inspired by his reverence, I sipped and savored each one, noting the cotton candy aroma of the blanco and the mellow fullness of the añejo. Helpful hint: don’t start chanting “tequila body shots” in this space or you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Whiskey Wild (RIP) it ain’t.

The quality of the food was uneven; the Enselada de Pacifico was a full measure too cold, the large serving of ceviche on the top was waterlogged, and the dressing (served, as requested, on the side) was the dreaded ‘90s-era raspberry vinaigrette.  The tacos de cochinita pibil were too sweet and cinnamony; the traditional accompaniment of habañero salsa would have helped. The tacos de arrachera were filled with wonderfully chewy and flavorful flank steak and topped with grilled onions and rajas but accompanied by a soupy, bland excuse for charro beans.  Mayahuel is aiming high and not quite making it, but it’s a new restaurant and if the prosperous-looking crowd I saw is any indication, they’ll have time to figure things out.

In contrast to Mayahuel, what could be more low concept than naming your business Tacos and Beer? Luckily, this restaurant has a subtitle with a key to its specialty: Tacos Apatzingán.  Apatzingan is the fourth largest city in the beautiful, green state of Michoacán. 

The enchiladas de Apatzingán come with roasted chicken on the bone and russet potatoes dusted with chili powder. The enchiladas themselves are covered with a mound of shredded cabbage and are simple: corn tortillas filled with cotija cheese and white onion.  The whole dish has a lively vinegar tang.  The pleasantly clove-y birria swims with exceptionally well-cooked goat – no easy feat – and comes with (and this is one of the best things about Tacos and Beer) glorious, hot and puffy corn tortillas cooked up fresh on the grill. 

Apatzingan also has a decent molé on weekends – it’s subtle and nicely bitter, but the chicken it was served with was sparse for the price.  The parillada (or “mixed grill”), a better deal, is a starter for four or a meal for two.  Again, you get the stack of corn tortillas along with a cornucopia of shrimp, chicken, asada, nopales, sweet grilled onion and rajas, slabs of mild white cheese, radish wedges, and the most rustic, home-style refried beans I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting in a restaurant.  What more could you want?  Even the boring old chicken tacos distinguish themselves with their carnita-like texture. On weekends, most customers are getting the molcajete, so that’s probably the bomb, too.

Writing this review is making me long for another trip south of the border to learn more about this complex cuisine.  Until then, I’ll just travel with my fork here in Sacramento.         

Tacos Sinaloense, (usually parked at Fruitridge and 44th Street)

Tequila Museo Mayahuel 1200 K st. 441-7200

Tacos and Beer 5701 Franklin Blvd. 428-7844

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