First visits to unfamiliar restaurants are generally a scouting trip and little more. Should we take a deeper look or cut our losses and move on?
My foray into the world of Zazon Guadalajara Grill was something special from the get-go. I knew it within seconds of taking my first bite of a barbacoa taco followed by a second bite and a third.
The flavors, the texture, the clean finish, the overall heft, the heady cravings they inspired.
They were all there.
Then came a carnitas quesadilla, which was outstanding thick and toasty on the outside, with some of the tastiest tender pork I've had in recent memory.
The tacos with lingua (tongue) caught our attention, too, for the meat clearly had been braised for hours until it could be teased apart with the tip of a fork.
So Zazon was good, no question. But how good?
To rank the best restaurants, I rely on benchmarks in specific categories, places that are indisputably top-notch. When it comes to lasagna, for instance, I lean on my vivid memories of the 10 layers of greatness at Biba.
For no-nonsense, authentic Mexican cuisine, my benchmarks are Lalo's and Chando's. While they each have their own styles and approaches, both are consistent in their commitment to tradition, to fresh ingredients and balanced flavors that always ring true.
If a restaurant stacks up anywhere close to these two heavy hitters, I can rest assured in rating it highly.
I wanted to know if Zazon could play in that league. I stopped by a second time, at which point I tried the classic spicy shrimp dish, camarones a la diabla. It was superb, with a slow build of heat from the seasonings in the bright-red sauce offset by a subtle sweetness on the palate. Then there were the telltale signs of quality, of pride, of extra effort the overall appearance of the food on the plate, the abundance of sautéed peppers tossed with the plump grilled shrimp, the garnishes of thickly sliced cucumbers and fresh tomatoes, the precision it required to cook the rice so perfectly tender and moist.
The fish tacos, too, underscored the quality here the fish was plump, the batter fried to a golden brown, the overall experience delicious.
Afterward, I studied the map and plotted my course. I was practically at ground zero for Mexican cuisine. In fact, the nearby intersection of Franklin Boulevard and Fruitridge Road has a Mexican eatery on three of the four corners.
The map suggested I could easily pit Zazon against my benchmarks Lalo's was just a stone's throw away on 24th Street. And thanks to its newly opened second location, Chando's was a straight shot up Fruitridge, four miles away. Tasting side by side would be the purest way of comparing.
I wanted to go with Zazon's strong suit its barbacoa. In Mexico, barbacoa is often made with beef cheeks or other parts of a cow's head. In the United States the cuts vary, but the central idea is a barbecue flavor with a hearty, spicy sauce.
Unfortunately, Lalo's only does barbacoa on weekends. So I settled on another great meat for tacos, al pastor Mexican-style barbecue pork.
Zazon's version was wonderful, a tad more subtle than Lalo's, which had an exceptionally spicy heat and a well-rounded flavor profile. Chando's doesn't offer al pastor per se, but its adobada is close enough for a fair comparison. It, too, is outstanding.
Zazon's held strong with its tacos. All three places are first-rate. The quesadillas showed contrasts when eaten one after another. Zazon's version is clean and simple, showcasing the grilled tortilla and letting the pork be the star. Chando's is sweeter, thanks to cubes of tomatoes. Lalo's is at its best when deep-fried. Again, this is Mexican cuisine done right. Same with the fish tacos each a little different, each very good.
For what it's worth, I encountered very friendly employees at all three places on my whirlwind taste test a great eatery can never sustain itself without great customer service.
Zazon, it turns out, is a contender for the big leagues of high-quality, no-nonsense Mexican cooking for the same reasons that Lalo's and Chando's hold steady at the top.
Zazon is legit and its reputation is destined to grow. And if you want to embark on your own side-by-side taste test, save room for the 3-D gelatin desserts at Zazon. They're a little work of art in a bowl.
ZAZON GUADALAJARA GRILL
2386 Fruitridge Road, Sacramento
Hours: Closed Tuesday.
9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday;
9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday;
8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday;
8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Beer and wine license
Vegetarian friendly? Limited
Noise level: Moderate, except when the mariachi band plays Sunday afternoons.
Overall: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
In a part of town that's brimming with Mexican restaurants, this casual, friendly and affordable spot stands tall for its consistent cooking, quality ingredients and, most of all, its great flavors.
Food: 3 1/2 stars
The tacos are the star here, but don't discount the burritos, quesadillas and full plates such as the fiery camarones a la diabla. The meats are all cooked with skill. Try the tremendous barbacoa, the carnitas or, for those looking for a little adventure, the very tender lingua.
Service: 3 stars (good)
You order at the counter, where the service is always friendly.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
A nice, big room and a laid-back vibe with lots of folks from the surrounding neighborhood. The sounds of mariachi livens things from 2-5 p.m. Sundays.
Value: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Almost all dishes cost $10.99 or less. Portions are substantial and the quality is well worth more than the modest prices.