Jaime Beltran the owner of Taqueria La Fondita holds a plate of pork tacos in front of his taco truck on the corner of South 38th and South G Streets in Tacoma. Janet Jensen/The News Tribune
Editors note: Come along as we eat our way through the heart of Tacoma’s Mexican food neighborhood in another installment of our 10 restaurants-in-1-mile series where we visit 10 restaurants in a compact area. This week, we eat our way around McKinley and Pacific.
Over the years, we’ve beaten a well-worn path from The News Tribune headquarters to Mexican eateries, such as Vuelve a la Vida on Pacific Avenue, the taco truck on South 38th Street and the old El Compadre on McKinley Avenue.
After countless burritos we began to notice something: When we said, "Let’s get Mexican!" we always headed to the same places. That’s not to say you can’t get a good south-of-the-border meal elsewhere in our area, but there is a clear concentration of Mexican restaurants in East Tacoma.
For this edition of our 10-in-one restaurant series, we look at Mexican eateries in the area from South 38th to South 56 streets, and from Pacific Avenue to McKinley Avenue. Okay, we had to stretch our 1-mile radius to snag a couple of other restaurants, but we’re hoping you won’t call us on that.
(Read our last installment of Meals by the Mile, the South Tacoma Way edition, published in October)
Taqueria La Fondita
Gravel lot at South 38th
and South G streets
One of the best Mexican eateries in Tacoma has a steering wheel.
Taqueria La Fondita’s taco truck is permanently parked in a vacant lot. A metal canopy provides shelter over picnic tables for the dine-very-nearby crowd.
A pork burrito ($4.99) was accompanied by limes, pickled radishes and carrots. The big chunks of adobada weren’t too spicy, and the burrito was stuffed with rice (but not too much) and fresh cilantro, onions, and (if you desire) sour cream and guacamole.
A plate of three sopitos ($5.99) can come in any combo you like. Sopitos are small but thick corn tortillas. The list of toppings is long, but I chose chicken, steak and pork for my trio and wasn’t disappointed. Be prepared to spend some extra chewing time to get down the occasional bit of gristle.
Like the sopitos, the tacos are small with the traditional thin corn tortilla.
A tostada plate ($4.99) was another variation on the theme: You choose the meat. It was a mountain of meat, cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro, Mexican cheese and sour cream. Combo plates ($7.99) feature pollo ranchero, steak ranchero or carnitas, all with beans and rice.
And since you’re wondering, we asked: According to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, mobile eateries like La Fondita go through the same rigorous health inspections that brick-and-mortar restaurants do. (Tip: Look above the rear license plate of any restaurant with wheels, and you’ll find a sticker with the last date of inspection.)
Vuelve a la Vida
5310 Pacific Ave.
There are a few Pierce County eateries that Seattle foodies make a trek to visit, and it comes as no surprise to Mexican food fans that Vuelve a la Vida is one of them. The restaurant has even made it on to the hallowed pages of Sunset magazine.
But this isn’t fine dining. What customers – both Mexican and not – come for is well-made comfort food (fajitas, chile rellenos, tamales) in a convivial and unpretentious setting. The place attracts a steady lunch-time crowd while evenings are more relaxed with groups lasting for hours around huge plates of food and buckets of beer and ice. Norteño tunes from the jukebox and murals of anthropomorphic seafood kicking back at the beach set the tone. Vuelve’s main dishes are so large it takes two plates to hold them. An order of three mole enchiladas ($9.25) comes with rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream and your choice of a 6-ounce chicken breast or slab of carne asada. If you’ve never tried mole (MOE-lay), the dark, savory and not in the least bit sweet sauce made from chocolate, here’s your chance. You can order all three mole or choose a combo.
Seafood cocktails ($9.89) come cold or warm (I always choose cold) with a choice of shrimp, oysters, octopus or – my favorite – all of the above. These are meals served in giant glass goblets. Thick sauce is forsaken for a watery but flavorful tomato-based broth with big chunks of avocado and limes. It’s accompanied by four crispy corn tortillas.
Several beer selections (served with lime) and a recirculating fountain of horchata quench your thirst.
Taqueria El Rinconsito
5415 Pacific Ave.
Taqueria El Rinconsito is a taco truck, sans the truck – sort of like how the La Fondita taco wagon on 38th would be if it had a roof, a table, chairs and a killer salsa bar. Rinconsito is a small local chain with stores in Federal Way, Auburn, Kent. It’s the kind of place where you order at the counter and find your own table.
The menu is burritos, tacos, sopitas and other things you’d typically find at a taqueria or a taco truck. Beans are thick, the rice garlicky and the meats well tended by the kitchen, as evidenced in the carnitas. At some Mexican restaurants, the carnitas sort of resemble boiled pork – gray, fatty and insipid. Blech. At Rinconsito, the carnitas are cooked slow and low, then roasted upon finish. They were beautifully crispy brown around the edges – ahhh, that’s good carnitas. With four tortillas and rice and beans, the meal is bargain-priced at $7.49 and enough for two.
The menu does dabble in more ambitious dishes, such as whole fried fish and menudo on the weekends (call beforehand to make sure it’s available). And the campechana seafood cocktail ($7.99) certainly is ambitious, but fails in execution. The seafood cocktail with shrimp, octopus, cucumber, onions and cilantro was swimming in a sweet tomato-based sauce that tasted like sugary ketchup.
Order simple at Rinconsito. The sopitas, for instance, are thick and chewy with just the right ratio of meat to beans and veggies (cilantro, onions and cabbage). At $1.50 each, that’s a cheap lunch.
La Surtidora Tienda Mexicana
5423 Pacific Ave.
It was tamales that a man behind the steam table pitched when we walked into La Surtidora, the tienda that’s just a few doors down from Taqueria El Rinconsito. I was in the mood for carnitas, but suddenly the tamales sounded pretty tasty.
Pork or chicken. A dozen for $12 or six for $6 or a single one for $1.25. They were nice and spicy, he said. Sold! I was fighting a head cold and in need of sinus-clearing heat – and these did it. They were spicy, meaty, saucy and delicious.
The pork tamale was stuffed with meaty chunks of carnitas and a zippy red sauce. My only complaint was a few fatty pieces still attached to the meat in one of the tamales. The chicken tamale also was hearty, stuffed with chicken and a nice palate sting from spicy verde sauce. The masa of the tamales was lightly sweet, tender and moist. My chief whine with tamales is when the masa is too dry or lacks flavor (and why so many cooks overload tamales with sauce – but they don’t fool us). These hit high notes in texture and flavor.
The store here has a small takeout counter with a bar and a few stools. Carnitas, menudo and chicharrone are the primary takeout items.
La Huerta 2 International Market
5605 Pacific Ave.
Is this a grocery store? Or a taqueria? The answer: yes.
La Huerta 2 International Market is a second outpost of the Kent-based combo grocery store/taqueria.
Walk through the grocery section to the taqueria at the back and find nine tables next to an order counter. Just tell the woman behind the counter what you want and she’ll make it for you as you watch.
A workingman’s-style daily lunch special was a bargain at $4.99. A combo plate with chicken in a verde sauce was a load of food with a side of beans, rice and tortillas. The sauce a bit salty and the chicken coated in some kind of egg batter, it was good, not great.
Papusa carnitas ($2.29), El Salvador style tacos, were thick, savory, chewy corn discs stuffed with carnitas, queso fresco, cilantro, pico di gallo and a squeeze of lime. A chicken tamale ($2.29) was a bit dry, but plump with meat. A pork tamale ($2.29) was far more moist and tastier than the chicken tamale.
4816 Pacific Ave.
This is the restaurant that could become a regular in your repertoire if you appreciate straightforward Mexican food in a family-friendly environment.
Josefina’s has a typical beef-pork-chicken-seafood Mexican menu with a few interesting specials. The paella Mexicana ($15.95) on the specials menu is seafood-heavy with calamari, oysters, bay scallops, shrimp and white fish. The pieces of white chicken meat meld well, but the strips of beef seemed mismatched with the fish. The dish had a nice back-of-throat spicy heat. Served over the same rice that comes with entrees, it was an interesting representation of a seafood paella.
The combo platter ($10.50) with a tamale and a chile relleno was a great order for a first visit. The tamale was laden with meat, just the way they should be. However, it was swimming in a mediocre sauce – a dark red enchilada sauce that tasted commercial– so consider ordering it with sauce on the side if you’re not a fan of saucy tamales . The chile relleno was a gooey masterpiece, a roasted chile wrapped in melted cheese and a layer of egg. It was one of the best rellenos I’ve had in months. I’ve been craving it since my visit.
The "ceviche" tostado ($6.95) was merely mediocre bay shrimp that had the taste and texture of the precooked grocery store shrimp. It came with avocado, cilantro and mushy tomatoes drizzled with lime juice. Skip this one.
Taqueria El Antojo
3801 Mckinley Ave.
Like Rinconsito, Antojo is a taco truck concept merged with a fast-food vibe (picture a taco truck plunked inside a Qdoba Grill). Antojo is modern looking with a clean, sort of slick corporate appearance, although you can tell by the taste of the food that there’s no mediocre chain concept in the kitchen. Antojo serves authentic street eats in a friendly, clean setting.
If freebie salsa bars are where you rate a taqueria, Antojo impresses. Help yourself to pickled vegetables, three kinds of salsa and salty chips that are free to paying customers.
The carnitas platter ($7.49) had thick refried beans with a hint of garlic (not runny or tasteless), lightly seasoned rice with a scent of onion and cilantro, a healthy serving of crispy-crunchy pork carnitas and a side of tortillas. It was prepared just the way I like it. A taquitos platter ($5.99) was a bargain with crunchy-crispy, beef-filled fried taquitos paired with a side of rice and beans. A kids quesadilla meal ($3.49) was of a better quality compared to what’s served at other Mexican restaurants – the quesadilla was full of melted, higher-quality Mexican cheese, as opposed to the ubiquitous greasy cheddar so many places use.
Get your fill of aqua fresca – four kinds –and horchata here. Also, the flan ($2.99) is a delicious treat – dense, creamy Mexican custard swimming in a thin, sweet caramel sauce.
4002 McKinley Ave.
El Sabroso is an ambitious enterprise, billing itself as a Mexican seafood restaurant. Lobster, quail and bacon-wrapped shrimp crowd out the usual staples on its menu.
El Sabroso occupies what used to be El Compadre’s space. Now expanded and remodeled, its tile floor provided ambience but made for a wobbly table.
Salsa and stale chips were delivered soon after we sat down. There is no beer on the menu, but you can buy it at the attached grocery store on the way out if you’re still thirsty. And you will be.
Parrillada de Mariscos ($19.50 for one and $39.95 for two) is an appetizer platter of seafood that all had one thing in common: grease.
My college Spanish was a necessity at El Sabroso, but I lacked the vocabulary to ask: "Why is our food colder than an Aztec tomb and saltier than the Gulf of California?"
Another dish, skewered beef ($12.95), came with the same Arctic preparation of beans and rice. The meat was well done, sliced thin and came with tomatoes.
I made another visit to El Sabroso, weeks later, to see if the situation had improved. Food had gotten less salty and a little warmer but that was it. Chicken enchiladas ($9.99) were dry. Fajitas ($15.95), the only dish that arrived hot, featured old-tasting shrimp and beef that was a singular mass of meat and gristle. Chips were still stale and a red salsa had flavors in it that should be made illegal.
El Globo Bakery
5320 McKinley Ave.
Pastries and cakes are all that’s sold at this small mom-and-pop operation. Pastries are bargain-priced at 70 cents to $1.50 each. The quality of the baked goods is far superior and tastier than the display cases at area tiendas that seem to all carry the same stale pastries. The reason for freshness here: It’s a bona fide bakery, not a place that calls itself a bakery that sells days-old pastries made off-site (bakery blasphemy).
We asked for ordering guidance and were rewarded with recommendations. Cheesecake was a bit overdone, but dense and richly flavored ($8, whole cake, or sold by the slice). A vanilla cream-filled tart was rich and chewy – the buttery tart was cookie-like in texture and flavor. Apple and cherry-filled empanadas were chewy, rich and designed for a coffee dunk. A dome-shaped, sugar-coated pastry filled with a sparse layer of cherry filling was too dry for me, as was a yeasty pink pastry called a conch.
We chatted up the woman working and she told us that her husband does the baking and she runs the shop. She sliced off samples of a leche cake and we were in cake heaven. They do birthday cakes, make a note of it.
Los Reyes Del Taco
6308 McKinley Ave.
Finally! Real ceviche. So many Mexican restaurants serve ceviche that’s an embarrassing imitation of the real stuff. Ceviche is not just a citrus-spiked seafood dish, it’s a cooking technique, and when prepared properly, it’s raw seafood that’s been cooked in a bath of lime juice (yes, the acid in lime juice "cooks") and combined with fresh cilantro and onions, and sometimes tomatoes and avocados. Many restaurants make ceviche with precooked bay shrimp and a squirt of lime juice, top it with onions and cilantro and call it ceviche. Come on! That’s not ceviche, that’s unimaginative potluck food.
At Los Reyes –a small, clean sit-down Mexican restaurant –they call the dish camarones ahogados ($11.99). It was a pretty good version of ceviche – even if it’s called something else. This version was a plate of chunky pieces of shrimp cooked in a lime-juice bath and tossed with cilantro, tomatoes and onions. It’s served with crackers or tortilla chips for scooping.
I used some of the flavorful shrimp-lime flavor to liven dull-tasting, runny beans and flat, tasteless rice that came with a carnitas platter ($8.95). I’d say skip the carnitas and instead order the camarones ahogados. You’ll like it better.