La Fiesta Taqueria: Behold the torta

La Fiesta Taqueria

1105 Alhambra Blvd.
Sacramento, CA

My early history with Mexican food, in three acts:

Act 1: Small-town girl eats at a Mexican-American restaurant with her family once a month for 10 years. Always orders the cheese enchiladas.

Act 2: Small-town girl moves to big city (Sacramento) and walks to Los Jarritos Mexican Food on Broadway twice a week. She’s living on student loans, and the chicken taco plate keeps her nourished for just dollars a day.

Act 3: Girl meets friend in south Sacramento at the original La Favorita Taqueria on Florin Road. Mind: blown.

I still remember that day vividly. I walked in to find people were eating goblets of seafood and drinking the murky leftover liquid. The employees wore soccer-style jerseys and joked and worked together like a real team. And what was this ceviche stuff? Was it really raw?

This was Mexican food as I’d never seen it before.

Then Favorita started to proliferate as a chain—some called La Favorita, others called La Fiesta Taqueria. My broke-ass friends and I debated which one was best and, most importantly, whose avocado salsa tasted better.

Over time, I ventured out to many other places in south Sac for Mexican and even took my first trip to the motherland. I thought that I had moved past La Fiesta and its fast-food ambience; I heard rumors that the salsa bar had gone downhill.

I’ve been living within walking distance from the grid’s La Fiesta for years, but scoffed at the idea of visiting until I thought it might be worthy of a review. As I strolled there, I started to construct the narrative in my mind and came to the assumption that the chain has indeed deteriorated in quality over the years.

But that was before I got the torta.

It is huge, served in a flash and arrives as big as a sub; almost the size of two regular tortas. It’s wrapped in foil with orange grease that abundantly oozes from the al pastor that fills it. It is fast-food at its finest; a three-napkin affair.

There’s no sign that the salsa bar has deteriorated—besides the carboardlike chips, that is, but they serve as bland but serviceable vehicles for the pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa and, best of all, the avocado salsa.

Fiesta also goes the extra mile at its salsa bar with chopped nopales, crisp pickled veggies and big hunks of radish floating on ice.

It is still fast food, though, and there are problems: The ceviche is gray and uninspiring, tasting only of cucumber and onion, with an oozing (and unnecessary) layer of crema underneath. The chili verde taco, customarily prepared with pork shoulder in a tomatillo sauce, is dry and oversalted; the grilled chicken is rubbery and perfunctorily seasoned with chili powder. A chili relleno plate was clearly nuked and not the lovely, puffy, eggy dish it can—and should—be when made fresh.

On another visit for Sunday breakfast, an artfully rumpled young couple is eating forearm-sized burritos and drinking equally large micheladas. The michelada, which comes with a single, perfect pink shrimp perched on the side and a salted rim, is swimming with black pepper and chili flakes. The soupy juevos rancheros soggify in thin tomato salsa, and not only are the eggs not overmedium as ordered, a portion of the white is totally clear. The chilaquiles can be ordered smothered with both red and green salsa; and queso fresco; and the red, thick, enchilada-type sauce that I craved for my juevos. The huge plate of hot, fried chips does not come with eggs, an authentic touch.

The Sunday-morning quiet gives me time to contemplate the festive décor and the high, arched windows looking out onto the dreary stretch of Alhambra Boulevard, and to wonder why people go to the Del Taco across the street when they could have a much better meal at La Fiesta, prepared with care by efficient young people wearing soccer jerseys. It’s nice to know that some things never change.