I’m in an area not normally associated with destination dining.
This is my fourth and final visit to a Mexican restaurant in this rural enclave. It’s a chilly Saturday night, and I am sitting at a table with a plastic tablecloth. The room is large, well lit, and tidy if a bit weathered. There’s a counter where you place your order and wall-mounted menus behind it with large photos of food. Nearby is the spot where you help yourself to the salsas.
The TV in the corner usually has a Spanish-language soap opera or variety show playing, but tonight it’s boxing. At closing time, the owners don’t just turn off the TV – they unplug it and carry it away, locking it up so it’s not so tempting for burglars.
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I have returned to this out-of-the-way eatery for one last look – and one final taste – to reaffirm my belief that Taqueria Mi Lindo Apatzingan should be considered a category leader. The two sisters who own the place have mastered their craft and deserve recognition. Their food is brilliant, and their passion and commitment to excellence are on display with every dish.
I’m sipping a tasty, creamy horchata, enjoying that upfront cinnamon note when my order arrives – two chorizo tacos and a plate of chile relleno, an item that can easily go off track with bitterness or blandness at inferior restaurants. But here, served with seasoned rice and refried beans, it’s a thing of beauty, along with made-to-order corn tortillas that are as good as any I’ve tasted.
The flavors are everything I could ask for. There’s balance. There’s boldness. There’s excitement. And yes, there can be inspired utterances, exclamations and profanities.
I learned about this place from Lisandro “Chando” Madrigal, owner of highly regarded Chando’s Tacos, where there is often a sizable line stretching down the block for some of the tastiest tacos around. Chando recalled how, when he first tasted the food at Apatzingan, he was so stunned by the flavors he was left to mutter expletives under his breath.
I know what he means. Eating here for the first time is, indeed, an emotional experience.
One bite. Two. Three. Your mind is playing catch-up with your taste buds. But by your fourth bite, you realize you are in the presence of no-frills greatness, whether it’s a plate of chorizo with potatoes, a carnitas burrito, or tacos with pollo, carne asada, al pastor, buche or cabeza.
The chimichanga with carnitas is extraordinary. The tamales have a mouthfeel that is neither too gritty nor too silky smooth, making for a beautiful, rich flavor and textural experience. The quesadilla filled with al pastor features these wonderful grilled onions that add a touch of sweetness to balance the savory roasted pork marinated in guajillo chilies and achiote.
The chile Colorado, with its deep reddish-brown sauce, has engaging notes of cumin, garlic, onion, oregano and chilies that make it soothing and satisfying. The classic spicy shrimp dish, camarones a la diabla, often viewed as a make-or-break dish at Mexican restaurants, is brilliant, too, with just the right balance of spicy heat with its thorough melding of flavors. It’s a welcome heat that builds and lingers in your mouth with every hearty forkful. By the time I finished, I had been to hell and back with a smile on my face and sweat on my forehead.
To understand why the food here tastes so good takes several visits, even though the quality is immediately apparent. There are no shortcuts to the cooking. Everything is made from scratch and cooked with a deep sense of connectedness to the state of Michoacán in west-central Mexico (Apatzingan is its fourth-largest city).
Like most Mexican food, it all starts with the tortilla. On our first visit several weeks ago, three of us ordered an abundance of food – tacos, a large burrito, chile verde and a stunning molcajete (more of that in a moment). Moments later, through a doorway leading to the kitchen, I happened to see a woman in the kitchen crouch down and scoop corn masa into a bowl.
“I think she’s making our tortillas right now,” I said to my friends. Sure enough, when the food arrived, there were these incredible tortillas, hand-shaped and slightly irregular at the edges, steaming under a burlap cloth, displaying a warmth and honesty that shines through in everything that is cooked here. After our second visit, I told these same friends that eating at this little restaurant was like having an amazingly talented Mexican grandmother cooking for you.
I wasn’t too far off. Mi Lindo Apatzingan is the work of sisters Veronica and Marisol Hermosillo, who come from Michoacán (Chando’s family also hails from the state) and speak little English. Veronica’s son, 15-year-old Alberto, is one of several family members who helps out at the restaurant. He said his mother and aunt learned to cook from their grandmother when they were 10 or so years old, and they were told they couldn’t go to school because they were better off learning how to work hard.
Alberto, who hopes to be a mechanic one day, buses tables and washes dishes. He watches his mom and aunt carry on their grandmother’s legacy of inspired cooking. The palates of these two women are rather profound. Their meats and sauces and salsas embody the best of what Mexican regional cooking can be, a kind of working-class comfort food featuring familiar flavors you’ve known for years, only here they are expressed to the point of perfection.
Veronica and Marisol worked at this location when it was Lalo’s (a sister restaurant to the Lalo’s on 24th Street in Sacramento), and bought the place about four years ago. Lalo’s is known to some of the most discerning foodies and chefs as the benchmark for this style of Mexican cuisine. Mi Lindo Apatzingan takes things to new heights.
The proof is found throughout the menu but nowhere more vividly than in the molcajete, a dramatic soup/stew-type dish named for the oversized lava-rock bowl in which it is served. This is the signature dish at Lalo’s on 24th Street, and it’s the most popular item on the menu at Mi Lindo Apatzingan. Paddles of roasted cactus, or nopales, hang over the edges of the bowl, and the broth bubbles and steams as it is set down on the table.
This dish illustrates everything these two women are about – where they are from, where they are now as cooks and restaurateurs, the love they have for big flavors, the quality of the ingredients. But most of all, it shows their ability to bring it all together – the cactus, steak, chorizo, chicken, beans, onions, salsa – into something greater than the sum of its parts, something magnificent.
Eating from the molcajete requires some low-effort assembly. You extract pieces of meat and green-bean-like cactus from the wide bowl, place them on the fresh-made tortillas, spoon on the salsa, fold and consume. The broth alone is so nuanced, complex and transcendent that you are sometimes shocked by the words your brain chooses to describe what you’re tasting and feeling.
Like Chando, I too uttered certain profane phrases while in the thrall of devouring this dish – none of which can be printed in a family newspaper. But my mouth was too full for anyone to understand – or be offended by – what I was saying.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.
Taqueria Mi Lindo Apatzingan
928 Oak Lane
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 10 a.m to 9 p.m. Friday; 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Wine and beer license; Mexican specialty drinks, including horchata.
Vegetarian friendly: Not so much.
Gluten-free options: Not indicated.
Noise level: Moderate.
Ambiance: Informal, simple and casual decor in an open, spacious dining room.
Overall ☆☆☆☆ (out of 4 stars)
Don’t let the plastic tablecloths or the informal décor deter you – this is casual Mexican cooking at its best. There are plenty of excellent Mexican eateries in this category in the Sacramento area, including Chando’s, Lalo’s, Zazon, Tres Hermanas and La Rosa. But this humble little joint in Rio Linda soars above all challengers with food cooked with skill, a sense of tradition and great passion. The flavors are so balanced and lively you are likely to be thrilled by what you see, smell and taste.
The chile Colorado, chile relleno and chile verde are outstanding examples of the cooking here. The tacos of all kinds are highly recommended, including al pastor, lengua and chorizo. The camarones a la diabla is a spicy shrimp dish done exceptionally well. And the showstopper, the bubbling, sizzling and steaming hot molcajete, is a work of art as cooked and served by the owners (and sisters) Veronica and Marisol Hermosillo. The handmade tortillas are magical.
You order at the counter, so service is minimal. But the employees are all friendly and food is delivered in a timely manner to your table.
The portions are large, the quality is superior, and the prices are excellent. The impressive chimichanga is $5.99, tacos are $1.40, a quesadilla is $4.99, and full plates like chile relleno and chile Colorado are $9.99.