Taco wars, part four

Critic finally summits burrito mountain

Taqueria oasis.

Taqueria oasis.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

In my last write-up, I revealed the sixth- through third-best taco trucks/taquerias in Chico, judged on criteria set forth in the first two installments of “truck wars.” Here are No. 2 and No. 1.

2. Tacos Mary (429 Ivy St.): The neighborhood in the heart of the student ghetto may put you off, but if you make the trek, you’ll find the most autentico taqueria in town. A few small tables, Spanish spoken everywhere, Mexican music in the background, the swamp cooler blasting—you could be in a taqueria in any Mexican town.

Mary’s builds the food in front of your eyes, with a cheerful Mexicana dumping giant spoonfuls of ingredients onto the tortilla while you watch in fascination on the other side of the sneeze guard. Perk points for being open Sunday, a rarity in the Catholo-centric taco business.

The food is delicious, and Mary’s boasts it’s healthy—a poster says their “tasty and amazing food” is made from scratch and the beans and rice are vegetarian. In fact, Mary’s is the only taco shop that takes vegetarianism seriously, offering its own veggie menu with interesting options. And the regular menu offers unusual items like campechana (seafood cocktail) and mula (a taco/tostada mashup).

On the down side, the menu is so absurdly long and complicated that ordering can be daunting. Would there were Tacos Mary Cliff Notes. Even the staff can’t understand it, so when I ordered a basic burrito, I was charged an absurd $8 and spent 10 minutes working with the cashier to figure out where that figure came from. There are many inexpensive items on the menu, however. And my $8 behemoth weighed in at an impressive 660 grams.

1. The best taco truck in Chico is … not in Chico. It’s in Hamilton City. El Patio is a truck, oddly parked in front of a Mexican restaurant called La Perla del Pacifico (585 Los Robles Ave.) and easily confused with a restaurant down the block also called El Patio. The food is cheap—$3.50 for a 490-gram burrito. The place is a perfect storm of taco truck perks: Spanish newspaper, gran baile posters, sopes, buches (Google it), extraordinary roasted onions and peppers by request, Spanish spoken almost exclusively, a glorious typo in the menu (“tostadadas”—tostadas à la Marcel Duchamp?), gratuitous mural of Mount Rushmore, and ample shade. But the best perk is the nearby La Bamba murals, which cover the outside and inside walls of the adjoining restaurant, murals that illustrate “the history of La Bamba” (the dance). No, I don’t understand it either.

The food explodes with flavor, but it’s volcanically hot and outlandishly raw-onion-y, unless you ask it to be otherwise. The counter person won’t ask. I ask for the mildest salsa and for onions on the side.

Honorable mentions:

Props to Tacos el Pinolero (East Park Ave.) for the best taco truck name. My native Spanish-speaking friends didn’t know what “pinolero” meant. Guesses included “pine nut gatherer,” “popular brand of Mexican flour,” and the correct answer: “Nicaraguan” (love that Internet!). Great food, too.

Props to Taqueria La Mexicana (main drag, Highway 99), the shed in Los Molinos from which one person produces, at the speed of tectonic plate shift, great Mexican food, including the best crema and sopes in the area. Finding the place is part of the fun.

Props to Aztlan (1645 Park Ave.), which sounds like something from Narnia but is a tiny shop specializing in tortas (most for $5.99), which may be the best bang for your Mexican food buck. One torta easily makes two meals. Tortas come on a bun that is essentially Wonder Bread, and they’re buried in mayonnaise. But if you ask for no mayo, they’re still madly flavorful, and the calories per dollar is matchless.