Talking fish tacos
Tacos Guadalajara has the best in town
My lamentation is over.
Since moving to Chico nearly two years ago, I have pined for a really good fish taco. Maybe there are better things to wish for, but dudes, you don’t fully understand. I’m from San Diego. Fish tacos ride the waves! They’re a Southern California staple crafted to art forms based upon the competition of restaurants that straddle both sides of the border. Some of us may not speak the language south of the border, and vice versa, but we all speak fish taco in San Dog.
Then I got this hot tip (from my wife): “The fish tacos at Tacos Guadalajara are amazing.” So I stopped waxing the board, loaded up the GTO, and spun a course for what turned out to be the best fish taco in Chico.
Doors swung open and there was Louis Zepella, the owner and operator of Tacos Guadalajara, sitting at one of his tables strumming his guitar and singing Mexican ballads from a lesson book at the top of his lungs. “This happen often?” I asked the girl behind the counter. “Sometimes,” she shrugged.
“Cool. One fish taco, please.”
And what a taco! Corn, mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, salsa, sour cream and real, formerly-swimming-in-the-ocean fish, grilled and floating delicately in a special marinade atop a corn tortilla. I was thinking, “Whoa, tsunami…” The search was over.
Turns out Zepella really is from Guadalajara—the source of his inspiration and knowledge and, come to think of it, the name of his restaurant.
“When I was a boy, I milked cows just outside the city limits,” Zepella remembered. “I’ve been working ever since.”
His comment reminds me that I’ve always wondered, since Mexico isn’t exactly known for its dairy industry, why the American version of Mexican food is covered with gobs of cheese. I asked Zepella about this.
He chuckled. “In the mountains of Guadalajara, there are dairy farms, but like you said, there isn’t much,” he explained. “We stress traditional cheese, like requesên [similar to cottage cheese], and it’s served for good bones, for health. We don’t overdo it.”
In fact, what you will find on Zepella’s menu is quite healthful. It’s without cheese and lard, deriving flavor instead from marinades and the grill. Aside from the awesome tacos, Zepella serves up a couple of other dishes worth the drive. The camarones al diablo is shrimp cooked in a red chipotle sauce, succulent roasted flavors sending up bottle rockets of delight. The birria is the beef equivalent, and if you absolutely have to have your food dripping with cheese, try the quesadilla de camarên.
“The seasons dictate freshness,” says Louis. “For example, I make a fresh salsa from scratch every day. But sometimes a vegetable or fruit is not available. I am always creating new dishes. But, in order for a new dish to make it to my menu, I have to eat the same food for a week. In the end, if I am not tired of it, the dish goes on my menu.”
Zepella came to the United States at age 21. He soon found Chico and worked his way out of the fields and into some local restaurants.
But he is adamant: “It was my momma who taught me how to cook. To this day, if I get stuck on a recipe, I’ll call mom. Together we find the right spices for the right food.”
I watched Zepella flip to a new page in his how-to Mexican ballad book. “I want to learn to play guitar corrido style,” he explained. Soon his place was filled with song. The aromas of grilled whitefish emanated from the kitchen, patrons sat in admiration under two huge skylights that add ambience to his place, and although we needed a translator every now and then to communicate, I could tell Louis Zepella was the kind of man who had to create in order to be happy.
From the hills of Jalisco to a modest restaurant on East Avenue, Louis Zapella talks "fish taco," and if you drive over and bite into one, that will be all the translation you will need.