Taco legacy

The glorious return of one of Chico’s favorite Mexican food joints

The carnitas plate from Cocina Cortes.

The carnitas plate from Cocina Cortes.

Photo by Carey Wilson

Cocina Cortes
1110 Dayton Road
Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.–7 p.m.;
Sunday, 8 a.m.–7 p.m.

Aural tribute:
The author’s band in the ‘80s, Secret Service, wrote an ode, en espanol, to Tacos Cortes that can be found here: soundcloud.com/carey-wilson/tacos-cortez.

Cocina Cortes

1110 Dayton Rd.
Chico, CA 95926

(530) 781-3253

For those who appreciate well-made, tasty and—most essentially—inexpensive dining, the ubiquitous taco trucks and Mexican restaurants that dot every neighborhood in Chico are an epicurean delight and an economic boost rolled into one fat, steaming burrito. But Chico hasn’t always had this embarrassment of riches. Many of us old-timers remember the 1985 arrival on Dayton Road of Chico’s very first taco truck—the now-legendary Tacos Cortes. It was a historic event.

The family-run business, which eventually grew from the original truck parked on a dirt lot into a cozy sit-down restaurant, became a mecca for an endless stream of chimichanga-, burrito- and taco-loving Chicoans who lamented its passing when the original site closed several years back.

So it was cause for celebration when the restaurant—which had recently been serving as a supply depot and cooking center for several taco trucks—reopened as a sit-down diner with food prepared by the original owner, Rodolfo Cortes and family. (Cortes sold the Tacos Cortes brand to other family members, who opened the Park Avenue location.)

My first opportunity to check out Cocina Cortes came on a recent Sunday evening when my companion and I were craving a warm meal but didn’t feel like cooking. So we drove the few blocks to the familiar bend in the road and pulled in when we spotted the small blue-and red neon “Open” signs glowing on the periphery fence and in the restaurant window. Inside, the place looks just as remembered, with dinette tables lining the walls; a clean painted concrete floor; and a cheerful young woman taking orders at the walk-up counter.

For old time’s sake, Missy chose the asada chimichanga plate ($5.75), served with beans, rice, sour cream and a small salad, while I chose the chile relleno plate ($6). Even though it was nearly closing time, we were brought a bowl of fresh tortilla chips and a generous bowl of chunky, cilantro-infused salsa that included jalapeño slices, tomato and onion with just the right amount of vinegar and salt to bring out the zesty flavors and whet our appetite for the main courses.

The chimichanga, just as in days of old, arrived with its crispy fried crust of flour tortilla stuffed with slices of flavorful beef, rice, refried beans, cilantro, lettuce and topped with shredded cheese and sour cream. Also, just as remembered, there was enough left over for another meal warmed up for breakfast the next morning. The chile rellenos plate held two large, fresh chiles filled with melted cheese and battered and fried to perfection. The accompanying warm tortillas, refried beans and fluffy rice, small salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion and cilantro accented with a vinegar dressing, complemented the rellenos by adding a variety of flavors and textures to the meal, which I ate to the last bite.

A few nights later, I returned and tried the carnitas plate ($5.75) and a chicken taco ($1.60). The carnitas came in a generous portion of big bite-size chunks with rich flavor that married perfectly with the same accompanying sides that attended the rellenos. The star of the event was the humble chicken taco—two large corn tortillas filled to overflowing with chicken, beans, onion, fresh salsa and cilantro—enough for a satisfying meal on its own and for the price a very genuine bargain that I’ll be happy to return for again and again.