Taco machine

Patio grill is a hit at new taqueria

Tacos de fritanga on the patio at Tacos Pepe.

Tacos de fritanga on the patio at Tacos Pepe.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Tacos Pepe
1002 W. Fifth St.
Hours: Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tues., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Wed.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Closed Mon.

In my dreams, I see a “taco machine.” Imagine a grill on a food cart with a raised dome in the center surrounded by a moat filled with a variety of meats. Corn tortillas are dipped in the oil then layered across the dome before being filled with carne asada, pollo, carnitas, or whatever other meats are gently frying in the moat and then topped with chopped onions and cilantro.

The taco machine is real, and it’s a thing of beauty. And when it’s parked outside on the covered patio in front of Tacos Pepe—it’s a highly effective selling point for the newly opened restaurant on the corner of West Fifth and Cedar streets (in the old Teddy Malibu’s spot).

Tacos Pepe was opened in January by Maricela Campanero and Teddy Malibu’s owner Jose Torres, but I didn’t find out about the place until I saw tantalizing images shared on Facebook by local artist Ayejay Morano with the caption: “Sorry all other tacos in Chico, Tacos Pepe just took over, overnight.” After several drooling comments, a wave of proselytes was on its way across the train tracks.

My first foray was for lunch, and my first taste of Tacos Pepe was … not a taco. Turns out the taco machine is up and running only four days of the week, and only at night. It’s fired up on the weekends for the Friday and Saturday nightcrawlers as well as Sunday and Tuesday nights for the $1 taco specials.

Not wanting to spoil my first taco impression, I got the chili relleno plate with rice, beans and corn tortillas ($5) plus a tamarind agua fresca from the fountain, and ate it in the taqueria’s tiny dining room. The chili rellenos were amazing on most counts—light and flaky, perfectly deep-fried shell around a rich and mildly spicy pasilla pepper and no sauce on top sogging things down. The only issue was the bland cheese used for the filling—something a little green salsa from the salsa bar helped remedy. The rice was good, but the refried beans were incredible, salty and meaty-flavored.

Taco machine schedule noted, I returned for a Friday night dinner. Things were just getting started when I got there, so I got to watch the setup. First, the moat is filled with oil and chopped onions, which cook through before precooked meats are added to the party, with big peppers placed as “borders” between each variety.

The grillmaster is Pepe Tolentino, the restaurant’s namesake, and on the nights I visited, his chosen meats were carne asada, carnitas, pollo, chorizo and cabeza (cow’s head). After a little online sleuthing, I found that this method of taco preparation has a name, “tacos de fritanga” (fried tacos), referring to how the meats are cooked slowly in the oil until tender yet crispy around the edges. Which is exactly how each of the varieties I tried (I had them all!) came out. With the freshly fried corn tortillas and the contrasting balance of onions and cilantro and a splash of any of the house-made salsas (and a price of only $1.50 each on regular nights), they were perfect, with a super-rich depth of flavor that beats out most if not all of my local faves. The spicy chorizo and unctuous/fatty cabeza were my favorites.

I should note that the cart isn’t actually called a “taco machine.” I did find domed “comal bola” pans online, but Pepe didn’t have a name for his contraption, so I just went what with my grumbling gut was repeating— “taco machine, taco machine”—and I’ll never call it anything else.