We could go round and round on the topic of tacos.
We could argue about who’s cooking the best meat. We could dissect salsas. We could probably find agreement around the idea that great tacos – real tacos – shouldn’t be too fussy or fancy or high end.
We could delve into the minutiae of each component and discuss how they must work in balance for an eating experience that is simple, delicious and memorable.
We could talk and talk, but I know a place that absolutely has to be part of the conversation – La Rosa, a humble, nondescript West Sacramento meat market and taqueria. In a weathered red-brick building where piñatas hang from the ceiling and Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico (and made with sugar rather than corn syrup) cools in the fridge, owner Jesus Arjon is a maestro with sizzling meat.
Arjon is a man of few words and his English is limited. To watch him at work is to witness focus, timing, balance, feel – all with a sense of ease. He has the marinades down pat. He cooks with great skill, passion and a sense of tradition honed through years manning the grill.
He doesn’t look at his watch or follow recipes. He has instincts and a practiced touch. His taste buds have memories; his nose will tell him when everything is ready. He has lived among this kind of food all his life, dating to his boyhood in Guadalajara.
His son, Danny, will tell anyone who listens that the key to the great flavors here is in the marinade – and that marinade is a secret. But that’s not the whole story. The real secret is time. Crafting food this good, with this much flavor and integrity, is all about slowing down. You cannot rush the art and science of flavor. And neither should you be in a hurry when you show up here for a meal. If you have to be somewhere and soon, you’re going about it all wrong.
Maybe you’ll get your tacos in five minutes. More likely, you’ll wait 15 to 20 minutes while the meats cook and Arjon tends to your order at what you might call three-quarter speed. You will never see him appear flustered or rushed.
Arjon has owned La Rosa since 2001. During the height of the recession, the family began selling off the business in pieces, only to watch the new owner of the taqueria run into financial straits. By 2010, Arjon had complete ownership back in his hands and he got back to the business of making food. The tacos here are the real deal. They’re not dumbed down or updated to suit American tastes or 21st century values.
Yes, the meat simmers in lard for extended periods. So do the onions, sliced in half and soaking up all that’s good about hot animal fat. If you’re worried about your arteries or your Weight Watchers points or plan on living to be 110, this might not be your kind of food. But if you’re all about flavors, textures and real Mexican cooking, this just might be what you’ve been longing to try.
It’s a showcase of steam and smoke, backed by bubbling grease and the sizzle of a good sear, with the maestro conducting it all with tongs and a watchful eye. Watch him turn the steak on the large heated metal cooking disc – or “disco” – then chop it rat-tat-tat with his counter-rattling cleaver. He’ll dip the corn tortillas in the hot lard, then slap them on the grill until they are warmed and crisp and browned.
You can see it and smell it and taste it. The seared meats like asada, adobada and carnitas, with crispy edges and charred spots here and there. The meats – steak, chicken, pork – take on a color that is brown and red and deep and beautiful.
Stand near his “disco,” where the liquified lard rests in a moat around the outer edge of the round cooking device. This is a low-tech appliance commonly used to make “tacos de cazo.” The center of the disc bulges upward, resembling an inverted bowl. This is a red-hot surface, elevated above the lard moat. It’s a relatively dry area that allows the cook to create a char on the meats and build more flavor.
This magical wheel of steel that cooks meat and makes steam and smoke has been featured on my Instagram and Twitter feeds numerous times in recent weeks. The visual impact cannot be underestimated. You can taste the food with your eyes.
These tacos are very solid. While the chicken is good and the carnitas and asada are superb, my absolute favorite tacos here are made with lengua – the beef tongue, which combines wonderful flavor and tender, luxurious mouthfeel that elevates the eating experience. These are relatively lean tacos topped with salsa, slices of onion, and cilantro and garnished with sliced radish.
The buche (pig stomach or esophagus) is also a standout. Granted, it’s not part of the everyday American diet to sink your teeth into cow tongue and pig innards, but if you’re looking for an authentic, blue-collar, no-nonsense meal that will make you think you’re eating street tacos in the heart of Mexico City, this is it. The meat, while seasoned and marinaded, maintains some of that earthy offal flavor, while the texture is smooth and slippery with a tender chew to it.
What is the best way to eat here? One, show up hungry. Two, as I mentioned before, don’t be in a hurry. The food here is amazing. The way it’s all organized? Not that amazing. You know how Chipotle has the whole thing streamlined for speed and efficiency? Turn that upside down and you have a recipe for long waits and tests of patience.
When you order at the counter at the front of the store, the clerk ever-so-deliberately writes down your order on a piece of scrap paper. Tacos are $1.50 each. (A light order would be three tacos. A big eater could handle five.) There’s no touchscreen that automatically relays the details to the kitchen. You walk to the back of the store and hand your paper to Arjon, whenever he is ready to take it. That could be 20 seconds. It might 20 minutes. Arjon is all business. He’s not going to ask you how your day is going. But he will watch over the meat, spoon salsa, assemble your tacos and make it all look easy.
The best way to test drive the tacos is to work your way through the meats. If you’re a vegetarian, there’s little here for you – maybe a cheese quesadilla or a bean-and-rice burrito (we cannot promise that these items are lard-free).
If you’re a mainstream kind of eater, ease into La Rosa’s offerings by starting with chicken, carnitas (fried pork) and asada (steak) tacos. Note the range of flavors and the wonderful textures, including the tender pork with the crispy edges or the tender, toothsome pieces of steak.
The rustic salsas are excellent. There are just two – a green and a red, with a bit of lumpy texture, visible pepper seeds and a hint of smokiness. The green is swig-a-Coke hot. The red is even hotter. I recommend trying both, but if your palate is sensitive to spicy heat, this isn’t your taqueria. You could skip the salsa, but you’d lose a key component of the tacos. Know that Arjon has a heavy hand with the salsas. You’ll want that cold drink handy.
Once you embrace the quality of the cooking here, it’s time to get more adventurous. Try the adobada (marinated pork), the cabeza (beef head, but it’s not as scary as it sounds) and the lengua (many chefs will tell you the tongue exudes deep beef flavor more than any other part of the animal).
You can dine at a few tables inside or, as we did one afternoon, stand outside in the parking lot with plate in hand. If you’re like me and the growing legion of La Rosa devotees, you’ll look forward to celebrating this funky little food experience that connects you with a beautiful and sincere cooking tradition – all for about $6 a visit.
While the tacos are the focal point at La Rosa, foodies should be sure to try the pambazo, an oversized sandwich stuffed with meat and cheese not unlike a torta, except the white roll is dipped in a spicy red chili sauce. The bread becomes soft and soaked and the aroma tingles the nostrils. It’s just an excellent way to announce to the world, “I’m hungry and I don’t care about making a mess.” It’s a steal at $5.50.
Don’t wear your favorite shirt.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.