Taqueria Jalisco is Daniel Flores' pride and joy, and it has been that way since he took over the business from his mother in 1996, turning an unassuming joint into something that deserves to be a local treasure.
He honed the food, obsessed over the salsas and, with a core of longtime employees, mastered the art of extraordinary personal service.
Along the way, Flores, 43, became one of the great unsung heroes of the Sacramento restaurant scene.
His taqueria is on a less-than-appealing corner at 16th and D streets, where within a six-block radius you're likely to encounter more than your share of bloodshot eyes, shopping carts loaded with bottles and cans, and disheveled people sitting and snoozing and drinking cheap booze.
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Your instincts may tell you to keep going, and that's how it was for me. I looked at Taqueria Jalisco, sized it up and wondered about it for more than two years before finally walking up to the window and placing my first order.
When I did, there was Flores, soft-spoken and smiling, asking if it was my first visit as he reached out to shake hands. He introduced himself and gave a brief description of a place that held on when the neighborhood was in the pits and that deserves to thrive now that the neighborhood is on a marked upswing.
Thousands of commuters pass by every weekday afternoon, heading home to the suburbs. Many probably wonder the same thing I did: Is it worth stopping for lunch or dinner?
You bet it is, whether you sit outside at one of the tables or take the food home on nights you don't feel like cooking. (Taqueria Jalisco is not to be mistaken with Jalisco Grill, a small, admirable local chain serving Mexican food).
The food is consistent and the flavors are balanced and true. The tortilla chips are made fresh on the premises and are as good as any in town: light and crisp and a beautiful golden brown. The menu, as written, appears unspectacular, but the food and all the intangibles add up to a simple but superior food experience.
The service is always friendly, and when Flores is there you get to deal with a restaurateur who is kindhearted toward his customers and passionate about the Mexican cuisine he serves.
You want street tacos? They're here and they're good. They're simple and honest, and the flavors are just right, whether it's chicken, pork, carne asada or the marinated beef carne adobada.
Burritos? You can go in two directions.
The American-style burrito is so big you may wonder, "Is this a taqueria or a delivery room?" My carne asada burrito, with beans and rice and salsa, weighed in at 1 pound, 14.5 ounces on my digital scale. This could easily be considered a burrito for two. The "Mexican-style" burrito (no rice and sour cream) was also delicious – and it weighed an impressive though relatively modest 1 pound, 1 ounce.
I'm quite fond of the salsas here, whether it's the moderately spicy regular offering or the one made with roasted pumpkin seeds that balances a spicy punch with an appealing sweetness.
The larger platters also are very good. I'm a fan of chili verde, which includes sides of rice and beans, for $7.99. Similarly, the daily special during one visit was a massive wet burrito (smothered with spicy sauce) that was excellent and too much food to finish in one sitting.
Throughout several visits, this taqueria was occasionally out of something on the menu. Once, it was the pork. Another time it was the hamburger buns. Then it was something else.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you want to identify a restaurant that serves fresh food, take note if it runs out of ingredients. That means it orders small batches and doesn't hang on to food too long. That means it makes freshness, not expediency, a priority.
One of my favorites at Taqueria Jalisco is the tostado ($4.99) with a choice of beef, pork or chicken. The ingredients are piled on a deep-fried tortilla shell that crumbles just the right way when you fold it and take a bite. There is plenty of flavor in this dish – beans, rice, pico de gallo, the meat, the shell itself – highlighted by the addition of a soothing buttermilk sauce, a special recipe developed by Flores' mother, Rosie.
This is where it gets interesting. Rosie Flores opened Taqueria Jalisco in 1990. She had cooked for Jerry Brown when he was the 35th governor of California, from 1975 to 1983. Now, as the 39th governor, he lives in a loft on 16th Street, six blocks from the taqueria. In those early days, Rosie was known for her catering and she cooked at many of the governor's private parties, according to her son.
She took her kitchen skills and those traditional recipes and opened her modest business in a small drive-up building that had been built in 1962 as a Foster's Freeze.
Those years were tough. The neighborhood, with plenty of historic homes on tree-lined streets, had been in decline. Drug deals, prostitution, loitering, littering, people sleeping in parks, shooting up in parking lots, you name it.
"The neighborhood is much better now," Flores told me. "In the early days, you could really tell the difference. There were a lot of drugs. I used to have to chase away the transients."
He thought about relocating to a place with less drama and gloom. But he stuck with it. He kept the menu simple, with mom's old-time favorites, including a pretty fine hamburger for those looking for something more American. That burger remains a top seller, and with good reason. It's $3.49, it's big enough and the quality of the meat is impressive. The french fries are good, too. It also shows that this taqueria does what it can to make folks happy, even if so-called foodies might find fault because it violates some rule about authenticity.
Over time, Flores' taqueria took on its own identity and began to attract regulars. It was always low-key, lacking fanfare or hype.
"I enjoy challenges. I kind of grew into it emotionally to hang in there. It became part of our lives," he said.
I am confident in recommending this taqueria run by a man and his staff who do things the right way.
My only mistake? I waited two years too long to check it out.
330 16th St., Sacramento
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Full bar? No alcohol.
Vegetarian friendly? Limited.
Overall 3 stars (good)
Though this is nothing like fine dining, don't let the modest appearance fool you. Everything in this place is fresh and prepared with skill, and you will invariably get a friendly reception when you walk up to the window. The focus is on Mexican cuisine but with occasional American interpretations, including a surprisingly good burger and fries.
Food 3 stars (good)
This taqueria emphasizes quality ingredients and freshness. The flavors are well balanced, the cooking skillful and consistent. Favorites include the tostado with a cool buttermilk sauce, excellent tortilla chips made fresh on site, a $6 burrito so big you could split it with a friend, and daily specials that are always first-rate, including a massive and delicious wet burrito.
Service 3 1/2 stars (very good)
OK, so there are no tablecloths and no wait staff. You actually order at the window and find an outdoor table or drive home with your grub. For what it is, the service is well above average. Owner Daniel Flores adds a personal touch and his longtime employees always treat customers right.
Ambience 3 stars (good)
This place is not going to win any international design awards. That's cool. The parking lot is big, the outdoor tables are plentiful and the location is excellent for those looking for a take-home dinner as they start their afternoon commute along busy 16th Street.
Value 3 stars (good)
Large portions, quality ingredients and good cooking add up to a satisfying food experience for the money.
Noteworthy: Taqueria Jalisco has dabbled in some of the edgier cuts of meat (by American standards) like lengua (beef tongue) and menudo (tripe soup). But perhaps because of the location on the edge of midtown, there has not been enough customer demand to keep them on the menu.