We were in Santa Cruz, California this last weekend and we ate a lot of Mexican food. Our favorite place is this tiny hole in the wall called Tacos Morenos. At lunch there is a line out the door every day they are open which is all year except for the month of December. The tables are filled and emptied out as people order their food, consume it in record speed and free up a table for the next customer. Every time we eat there we are amazed at how fantastic the food is. They make the tortillas from scratch and they are flaky, soft and delicious. The pinto beans are soft and full of flavor, not just cooked through. It would be easy to eat a bowl of them, all by themselves and be completely satisfied. I am just as happy with a bean and cheese burrito as I am with their carne asada or al pastor. The chips are made on site, along with the salsa and are crispy, warm and delicious. When enough time has gone by where my husband and I haven't visited California, we usually start to convince ourselves that there is pretty good Mexican food available in Seattle. Then we go to Berkeley (his hometown) or Santa Cruz and remember what it can really taste like. The salsa at these taquerias is fantastic while still being unique. It isn't bottled, they are charring tomatillos and adding fresh cilantro and onions. We drove from Tacos Morenos to my dad's house which is near University of California at Santa Cruz (less than 5 miles) and passed 4 other excellent taqueria's.
Whenever we bring this topic up to our friends in Seattle, we inevitably get the reply, "but you haven't tried this one place". I fell for that about 4 times. I will still go and try whatever restaurant is being touted because I am desperate but I am no longer optimistic. There is food that tastes good that is made in restaurants that define themselves as "Mexican" but it is not the California Mexican that my husband and I grew up on. I know that California Mexican is a modification of true Mexican food but irregardless, it is much better than any Mexican food I have ever eaten in Seattle. Plus it is just good food. I get kind of tired of the old argument that in Mexico burritos are just made with beans, rice and meat, as if that means liking the California style of Mexican is somehow sacrilegious.
Santa Cruz is surrounded by agriculture and there is a large Hispanic community. The taquerias are run by Mexican families not by two annoying white guys who think they are absolving themselves of their sins by identifying themselves as gringos. So after the 4th time of trying a sub-par Mexican restaurant we went to Taco Gringos. The tacos were pretty good but of course it can't just be a good taqueria, not with a name like Tacos Gringos. It doesn't open until 8, they have different options every night so you can't fall in love with something and go back to get it because it probably won't be on the menu. They don't even have any stools or a standing counter (which there is room for). Every time I leave that restaurant (if it can be called that) I hear someone say "those f***g taco guys". I am serious, I have heard someone mutter that every time I have gone to that restaurant. I have used that expression myself. One night I went there and they were offering rhubarb and tongue tacos as the two options of the night. I rolled my eyes and we left. Fine. Offer one option that strays from the norm but both? It would be like a pub removing their french fries from the menu (or their beer for that matter) and replacing them with Taro Fries (or sake). But the tacos are good. They are a close approximation to what could be one of those fantastic taquerias that I dream of. I can tell when I eat the tacos from Tacos Gringos that those guys have it in them to be the taqueria that I wish existed in Seattle. If they, perhaps, held normally business hours, expanded their menu a little bit and kept some norms on the menu.