Carla Meyer

Dining Review: El Pueblo in Winters scores with authentic and sincere Mexican cooking

With its hearty plates of Mexican comfort food, El Pueblo Meat Market and Taqueria/Deli in Winters strives to keep things simple and old-fashioned.

But in order to understand just what you are getting into when you visit this humble and sincere shop, it’s best to know its back story – how, for years, Baldomero and Elia Arce worked two jobs while running two businesses, how they toiled from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, getting home just in time to watch a little TV and fall asleep.

But why?

So their dream could become a key part of the community. So they could share their passion for Mexican food made with all those little personal touches they picked up from their elders going back generations. But more than anything, so they could send their three kids to college.

On a charming block of Main Street, this couple opened El Pueblo, a long, narrow storefront with old wood-plank floors and an expansive meat counter, in 2005. How have things gone? Nothing short of the great American success story, albeit one that includes sore feet, aching backs, slim profit margins and punishingly long hours.

El Pueblo is, indeed, a community fixture and gathering spot, with plenty of avid regulars.

And those kids? The oldest daughter, 27, has a master’s degree in social work. Their 25-year-old daughter soon will graduate with a criminology degree. And their only son, 24, is on pace to get his master’s in human development in the spring.

Yet the work for Baldo and Elia has barely slowed. With their grocery store across the street going strong, and with the meat market and taqueria doing steady business, Elia was able to step away from her full-time job as a nurse’s assistant in recent years and focus on the two businesses, while Baldo has kept his job as a forklift operator and truck driver at the local almond processing plant in Winters. After work, he’s at the taqueria until closing.

While it’s easy to applaud their work ethic and their vision for their children, it’s just as easy to admire their food.

During each of our three visits, we found the cooking to be consistent, the flavors deep and familiar, the menu thorough and inviting. And with every visit, it was impossible to pass up those chicharrones – thick, elongated strips of pork rind, fat and meat, fried to a golden crisp and shown off in a display case at the front of the shop.

You glance at the stack of chicharrones and you can almost begin to hear the crackle with each bite. Sure, maybe they’re never going to get a heart-healthy designation from the surgeon general, but this is an endearing and authentic snack that offers a direct connection to the old country and the old-school way of doing things.

During one visit, I spotted Baldo, the maestro himself, standing over a bubbling, smoking vat of oil, carefully watching over the latest batch of his chicharrones as they bobbed in the oil. This eatery’s most appealing version is the chicharron con carne – those crisp pork rinds with ample chewy meat still attached. They sell for $6.99 a pound.

All of the lunch and dinner plates are agreeably large and well portioned with beans and rice. The shrimp with a spicy red sauce, camarones a la diabla, was one of our favorite dishes – with the mild-tasting shrimp cooked perfectly tender and a sauce that pops on the palate with just the right amount of heat. If you’re sensitive to spicy hot food, you might want to sit this one out.

The carnitas are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The slow-cooked pork is tender and has a deep but mild flavor, suitable in tacos or a burrito. The chili verde is even more appealing, and more flavorful, with the tender pork shoulder cooked in a tomatillo sauce bolstered with jalapeños.

Carne asada and al pastor are also done with skill and an adherence to tradition. The pozole, that ancient soup made with hominy, is also a big winner here, with fresh garnishes and a great stewlike eating experience. There’s also menudo, and while some may shy away from eating what amounts to the beef stomach, or tripe, we found the menudo here to be first-rate – the meat cooked slowly until it’s tender, with a deep-red chili pepper broth that was soothing and just spicy enough.

This is definitely not fast food. Nothing here is fancy or offbeat or cutting edge, and nothing can be cooked using shortcuts. That’s just not what this place is about.

The recipes are old and haven’t changed. The beans and rice, for instance, don’t have any wow factor or extra burst of flavor. But neither do they distract from the main focus on the plate. They are a low-key complement to the overall eating experience, though the beans and rice we had were always nicely prepared.

The burritos are large and stuffed to the max, probably more so than what we’d encounter in many parts of Mexico. But times change and so do the expectations of customers.

Even at the most authentic taquerias, there is something of an arms race when it comes to size. I know – I’ve weighed many of them from joints in and around Sacramento and some were well over a pound. The burritos at El Pueblo are more medium-large than stupid-big.

But when you get right down to it, this is a neighborhood joint, a family operation, a community fixture and, yes, the dream that helped propel three kids toward better lives.

“I start working at the other job at 6 o’clock in the morning,” Baldo told me when he answered the phone one night at the taqueria. “I get off at 4 and come back over here and help my wife. We close at 8 or 8:30, clean up and then go home by 9:30 or 10. On weekends, I stay here all day.”

That may not sound like a dream, but it’s his dream.

“We tried to find a way with the jobs we have to send our kids to college so they can do something better than me and my wife,” Baldo said. “I try to explain to my co-workers and everybody else that when you have a dream, you have to work for it.”