Lucky horseshoe

El Herradero Taqueria

2330 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 646-1773

Sacramento is by no means poor when it comes to perfectly acceptable taquerias; it’s sorting out the superlative ones that can be a challenge. I’m in thrall to the ultra convenience of the La Fiesta empire as much as the next person, but comforting as a familiar taco can be, it’s worth trying to seek out new thrills. Arden Way might not seem like a propitious place to do that, but El Herradero—a tiny little taqueria occupying a surprisingly charming if odd space east of Howe—gives the lie to that assumption.

I think I might be the last to know about El Herradero, actually, so if you’ve already been and you’re just nodding along in agreement, I apologize. For those who haven’t, you’ll know it by the many, many paintings of horses and other equine-themed decorations, such as many horseshoes, and the unusual circular bays of windows, lined by cushioned bench seating, and prettily curtained. I’m not usually a big fan of horse paintings, but the overall effect here is surprisingly charming and certainly a step up from your average taqueria. You order at the counter (from which you can peek into a long, galley kitchen with lots of good smells wafting out), and the food comes out fast, though of course you get a basket of chips to tide you over.

The first sign that the food was going to be darned good, actually, was those chips: thick and with a clean flavor of toasted corn, they were warm and clearly fresh, without even a hint of that stale-oil note that can bedevil the chip. A miniature plastic molcajete of bright red salsa complemented them perfectly; it was hot but not searing, and you could distinctly taste a fresh tomato tang, underscored by earthy notes of Mexican oregano and the sharpness of onion. Another standby that was unusually good here was the refried beans, which had a full beany flavor and plenty of body; we just tried them in a side, alongside a plain quesadilla, but I kept going back for more bites.

Delicious in a whole different way was the ceviche. I got a little ceviche tostada, and it was firm and sparkly fresh, full of tart lime and overflowing the crisp-fried tostada shell (just as good as the chips), with a tumble of chopped tomatoes and lots of crunchy green bell pepper, plus more hints of oregano to offset all the light, bright top notes with grounding herbs.

The sweet fish and shrimp flesh and buttery avocados provided mild flavor and textural contrast, and a Negra Modelo washed it all down perfectly. About that beer: They only have a few beers available (and some other drinks, though they were out of aguas frescas when we visited), but they serve them well. Though the table setting and cutlery are simple (tacos and burritos come in a basket, combos on those oval earthenware plates), with a beer you get a heavy glass mug so frosty that it actually made the beer a little slushy, and kept it cold to the last swallow—a nice bit of attention to detail.

After the ceviche, I turned my attention to tacos. I thought I’d ordered too much, but I pretty much managed to polish them off. The lengua taco was the only very slight disappointment, in that the meat itself was a tiny bit bland—albeit beefy and super tender—but a few squirts of the green salsa they bring in a squeeze bottle perked it right up, and it did have plenty of sweet, crunchy onions and leafy cilantro. In the chile verde taco, the chunks of mild, fairly lean pork were livened up by a complex, piquant green sauce, with a bit of chili spice. In addition to these toppings, you can choose from cabeza, shredded beef, carnitas, shrimp, fish and more.

My husband’s al pastor burrito was also a winner, with lots of red-chile-marinated pork surrounded by not too much beans and rice. The pitfall of al pastor can often be greasiness, but this was free of the orange ooze and instead rich in flavor, with a toothsome, not too fatty texture and a good balance of beans and rice in the hefty burrito.

Aside from tacos, burritos and mariscos of various kinds (not just ceviche, though the basics—shrimp and fish—are what’s offered), the menu includes tamales and chile rellenos, sopes and fajitas, and combo dinner plates of various sorts. It’s a simple lineup, with nothing particular you wouldn’t find at most other taquerias—aside from freshness, attention to detail and deliciously good execution, plus a quaint setting and a very friendly spirit. In short, it’s worth a visit; maybe there is something lucky in all those horseshoes.