Moonshine Ink | April 2012
Lunchtime on Tuesdays is routine. It’s dollar taco day at Diego’s. Grilled chicken carne asada or carnitas served with cilantro onion lime and salsa — bueno. Diego’s keeps their tacos simple and spicy. It’s a fiesta in my mouth to break up the workday.
Diego’s on Tuesdays Tacos Jalisco after climbing on Donner Summit La Mexicana when I’m hanging out in Kings Beach — most of us have a spot a favorite taqueria that we fell in love with at first taste.
'Jalisco’s. Definitely' said Kellan Hori a chef based in the Bay Area and Tahoe when I asked about his favorite Mexican place up here. 'It’s the closest thing to the Mexican food you find in San Diego. After living in San Diego for so long [7 years] I have a small expertise on what Mexican food should taste like.'
Here in Truckee/Tahoe we are not as close to Mexico as San Diego but we do have plenty of authentic taquerias and Mexican food joints to take us south of the border. No one needs to say 'Yo quiero Taco Bell' in this town. Each taqueria has its own specialty its own story and its own spice. For the most part the person cooking your food learned the recipe from family. The flavors are instinctual. The way it’s done in Mexico is the way it’s done here. Why are beans and rice served with every plate?
That’s just how it is.
'Every household in Mexico has beans every day' says Alex Brambila who owns Las Panchitas in Kings Beach. 'Beans go with everything.'
Brambila is a friendly man who speaks with a rolling accent. He’s usually found behind the bar concocting a delicious margarita.
'That’s my thing' he said.
Brambila has been working at Las Panchitas since it opened in Kings Beach in 1982. At 20 years old he had just moved to the United States from his hometown Tamazulita in Jalisco. He was staying with his brother in Los Angeles when he met 'The Boss' David Busch who was opening a restaurant in Tahoe and offered Brambila a job. Those first years at the restaurant Brambila didn’t speak a word of English. He washed dishes bused tables cleaned and did maintenance. A few years later after mastering some English he started waiting tables. Then he took over managing. Now 30 years later Brambila owns Las Panchitas.
'I love this place' he said. 'I’ve been fortunate.'
Like Brambila and most of the staff the recipes have also remained consistent at Las Panchitas. I ordered a chile relleno. Las Panchitas gets chiles fresh three times a week from a regional food distributor. The chiles are roasted peeled dipped in a light batter and put on the grill. Then they’re rolled up like an omelet with cheese and smothered with a savory tomato sauce.
'The food is fresh. We make it every day' Brambila said.
The food is cooked from scratch the same way it was in 1982. It’s authentic food but it’s been adapted to an Anglo palate Brambila said. The sauces are thicker; it’s not as spicy. (Although if you want spicy just ask and they will make your dish with flames.) Las Panchitas is not a taqueria in a literal sense. It’s a sit-down restaurant with sunny yellow walls.
'Everything is simple' Brambila said. 'We are just a simple little restaurant. We love cooking Mexican food.'
Ana Martinez who owns Diego’s with her husband Octavio learned how to cook from her mother who learned who how to cook from her mother. Now Martinez is passing the same culinary instinct down to her 10-year-old daughter. There is no recipe book at Diego’s. Nothing’s written down.
'We cook like we cook at home' Ana said.
I stopped by Diego’s located on West River Street earlier than usual on this particular Tuesday. I wanted to catch the Martinez family preparing food for the day. A vat of carnitas was boiling in its own fat on the stove. Antonio Martinez Ana’s father-in-law was grilling pollo that had been marinating overnight in onions garlic chile powder and other seasonings. Juana Martinez whose husband is Ana’s husband’s cousin prepared the line with freshly cut lime tomatoes and jalapenos.
Ana was making fresh tortillas which she serves with her plates and gorditas. She kneaded the dough — masa de maiz flour and a splash of water — with her hands. Then she rolled the dough into balls and put them in a tortilla press to create perfectly round flat shapes. The tortillas went on the flat top and were flipped three times — the third flip is when the tortilla puffs up and a golden ring appears on the edge Ana explained.
'That’s how you know they’re done' she said handing me a warm fresh chewy tortilla and some salsa.
Ana who grew up in Michoacan a state near Jalisco and has lived in Truckee for more than 11 years opened Diego’s in November of 2010. Her husband named the restaurant after their 8-year-old son. Ana had no experience in restaurants before opening Diego’s. But she wanted to start a restaurant that was about authentic food and quick service a place that embraced the bright colors and simple spicy flavors she grew up with.
'I wanted authentic and to really stay authentic' she said.
The least authentic ingredient in the entire restaurant Ana says is the sour cream they put on their burritos. She’s still holding out on serving her dishes with cheese.
When I think about authentic there is one place that stands out above the rest — La Mexicana. When Squaw Valley resident Jason Arsenault wanted to find a good Mexican restaurant he asked some of the Latino guys he worked with at a burger spot in the Village. They didn’t give him any good leads because they mostly make the same food at home Arsenault said.
'But then I was going to La Mex and I actually bumped into a bunch of those guys' he said. For Arsenault that was the affirmation he needed that La Mexicana was legit.
The traditional grocery store and taqueria located on Brook Avenue in Kings Beach is filled with goods you would be hard pressed to find at Safeway. Tomatillos and cactus fill the produce section which sits next to a display of fresh Mexican pastries. Dried peppers sweet Jarritos soda pinatas hanging from the ceiling — you name it. At lunchtime the place fills up with customers looking for a quick taco to go.
'That’s the real Mexican food. We make it the same way as in Mexico' said Jesus Rodriguez who opened La Mexicana 14 years ago with his family. 'We make everything — the salsa chop the vegetables we make the beans and the carnitas … The community comes here because the food is fresh.'
Back in Truckee at Tacos Jalisco owners Rigoberto 'Rigo' Uribe and Maria Herrara were telling me about one of their signature dishes the armadillo. In Mexico Rigo said he ate armadillo on a regular basis and that it has the texture and taste of three different meats. Inspired he created his own dish with cactus shrimp pork and beef sizzling in a tomato and chili sauce. The armadillo is easily one of Tacos Jalisco’s most popular dishes and I can see why. My mouth started watering as soon as the spices’ aroma hit the air and my eyes feasted on the rock bowl full of stew served with rice beans and tortillas.
Open since 1994 Truckee’s Tacos Jalisco has a following that’s almost religious.
'Once I went there I didn’t want to sample anything else' said Hori the taqueria connoisseur who holds Tacos Jalisco to the high standards of San Diego. 'The meat was really good. Everything tasted like it was out of a taco shop in Mexico.'
Contractors office clerks families skiers climbers — regulars file into Tacos Jalisco on a daily basis. And they know what they’re coming for.
'When they come in they know what they want to order. They don’t hesitate' says Alexis Uribe 18 Rigo and Maria’s daughter who often works the cashier.
Rigo started working in taquerias when he was a teenager. He worked for his uncles in Guadalajara and Mexico City before moving to Truckee in 1989 where he met Maria. The couple started selling tacos out of a truck in 1994 and opened Tacos Jalisco in its current space the following December. Today Tacos Jalisco uses many of the same recipes from Mexico with a little adjustment from Rigo. I asked about the salsa recipes but he quickly shut me down. Those are a secret.
'This is what I learned when I was small' Rigo said. 'So that’s just what I know how to do.'