Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: ‘Homemade’ is key at El Mariachi in Rocklin

We found El Mariachi Taqueria in the Sunset Pointe shopping center on the outskirts of Rocklin, in a corner suite. It’s near the estimable Via Roma Italian restaurant and a few doors down from Bambu, which specializes in Vietnamese desserts and drinks.

Lunch pal Dino Rotas, who mans the gyro booth at the annual Greek Festival over Labor Day weekend, joined me at a table in the surprisingly pleasant oasis. Ceilings are high, the floor is tiled and Mexican beer signage is plentiful. We heard no frantic mariachi music on the sound system, only soothing ballads during our visit.

Black-iron chandeliers and wall sconces help to accent the rustic plastered walls. Snatches of song lyrics to popular Mexican tunes are hand-painted on those walls (“La que le gusta, a mi mujer”), along with artfully rendered illustrations and a menu.

Owner-cook Lupe Manuela opened five years ago and specializes in the cuisine of Guanajuato, a state in north-central Mexico, because that’s where she and her sister grew up. “The (dishes are) made from family recipes we brought here and other recipes I’ve picked up,” she said later on the phone. “Just about everything is made from scratch.”

The restaurant is a family affair, with Manuela’s nephew, Christian Gomez, working the front of the house, and her daughter, Amanda Benitez, helping out as needed. Among the specialties are carnitas, chile rellenos and mole sauce concocted from “a dozen ingredients. We put it on enchiladas,” she said.

We spotted many of the usual suspects on the menu (burritos, tacos, tamales, tostadas, chile verde; $2.59 to $15), but were struck by the seafood section and the daily specials. Shrimp soup with cilantro shares space with cerviche and octopus, for instance. The daily specials were two taco trios, one with cabeza (roasted meat from the cow’s head) and the other with chicharrón (crisply cooked pork skin; $6.69 each). Question: What in the world is a double cheeseburger doing there?

Also, menudo (tripe soup) and pozole (hominy soup) show up Fridays through Sundays, along with breakfast (eggs with chorizo sounded good for next time).

We started with two enchiladas (one carnitas, one chicken) covered in melted cheese and red sauce; a chile relleno (poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, coated in a light batter and fried); and a trio of chicharron tacos.

While we waited, we dipped tortilla chips in house-made salsa that had just the right amount of heat and, unlike most, was mercifully free of onion chunks. Tall glasses of hibiscus-flavored agua fresca cooled us down. Nearby, a big guy worked on a glass chalice filled with enough shrimp cocktail for two.

Soon, we were stabbing the two enchiladas with forks and knives, surprising ourselves by preferring the chicken over the shredded pork, which we agreed was in need of more seasoning. The chile relleno was light, creamy and delicious, the pepper coated in excellent batter.

Refried beans are tricky and treated as an afterthought at most of the Mexican restaurants of our acquaintance, but these were creamy and sweet. The rice was in need of flavor, though, a lapse we consistently come across at so many Mexican restaurants. Question No. 2: Which ones serve drop-dead rice? Let me know, please.

Pork rinds are seasoned strips or pieces of pork skin that are deep-fried. The ones commonly sold in little bags in supermarkets (Baken-ets and Howard’s are top brands) are nothing like the chicharrónes on our tacos. The dark, crunchy-chewy pieces of meat had deep flavor and worked perfectly with cilantro, jalapeño, onion and tomato on OK mini-flour tortillas. We poured some of that house-made salsa on top and squeezed a lime wedge over everything. Give ‘em a “yum!”

As we left, Dino asked Question No. 3: “Who would expect to find homemade Mexican food in a shopping-center outpost?” Not us, but we were glad we did.

An island of tacos

A much smaller and more informal Mexican restaurant is Island Tacos, a kiosk that’s been in the same place for nearly 10 years. It’s in the parking lot in front of Les Baux bakery-bistro, across from Three Sisters Mexican restaurant in east Sacramento.

It’s run by the Valderrama family – Antonio, wife Maria and son Jose – and serves homemade dishes that include tacos, burritos and quesadillas ($1.64 to $6). We liked the chicken and carne asada tacos spiked with house-made salsa, but loved the black beans and whole pinto beans.

Island Tacos, at Folsom Boulevard and 51st Street; (916) 599-8152. Hours: 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays.