Mezcal Taqueria: Reliable and unpretentious
Sacramento, CA 95833
Mezcal, the Sacramento taqueria—not the agave elixir—is celebrating its third birthday by merely offering flan to its patrons. Management is making no major changes in the friendly formula that has kept it dishing out items, such as shrimp molcajete and good ol’ chile relleno, during a three-year period in which any number of eateries have bit the big one. Part of this success is steady take-out traffic. It’s no wonder the convivial cashier at the register (from which all orders flow) asks first if the food is for here or to go.
Here is a spacious, mustard-walled space with a glass front that faces the parking lot of a Natomas strip mall. There’s a row of roja, amarillo, naranja y azul sombreros high on the wall to the right of the register; a spindly succulent in an arched alcove by the door; and flat screens that appear to showcase the unbridled majesty of fútbol during every single second of each operating hour.
On this visit, a longtime pal Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters, is spotted filling up a phalanx of Mezcal’s hauntingly smoky tomatillo salsa. Seeing him elicits an “I guess all the cool people eat here,” which, in turn, engenders an “I love this place” endorsement. But, he adds, there’s nothing but soccer to watch. Relative to the Spanish-language soap operas that often grace the screens of many Mexican taquerias, soccer might be preferable, although trying to unravel the sordid and sinuous plotlines of the telenovelas can often be more riveting than waiting for a goal.
The term taqueria hasn’t been devalued as a description, but its application has been expanded beyond merely characterizing a place specializing in tacos. Originally, a taco stand. Or, reluctantly, a Mexican fast-food joint. Numerous places still cling to the traditional taqueria notion. Hole-in-the-walls with often delectable fare abound from south Sacramento to Folsom. But the term has now been appended to places far broader in sweep. What seems to be constant is the concept of swiftly served food at a relatively reasonable price.
Mezcal falls into the latter category. If the monstrous molcajete—topping the menu at $14.95 for one and $24.95 for two—isn’t clue enough, than the shrimp diabla, chicken fajita salad and lime-infused fried tilapia, mojarra frita, should settle the issue. There still are $2 small tortilla tacos in many variations: asada, cabeza, carnitas, chili verde, chorizo, lengua, molida, pastor y pollo. The limes, radishes, pickled jalapeños and three salsas found at the condiments bar all add to their enjoyment, as well as that of other dishes.
Among the specialties is a tasty arrachera. The thin-but-expansive citrusy steak with a wilted green onion lying across it like a rose on a coffin is artfully grilled. It’s etched with black zigzags but devoid of excessive carbon. It rests on a bed of sautéed red peppers, onions and—surprisingly—mushrooms. Short work with the steak knife creates strips for a regal, handmade taco—better with corn than flour tortilla—that doesn’t need much of a salsa slathering to light up the palate. Elsewhere on the list is a carnitas plate that falls in price from $8.95 to $9.95 when showcased as a daily special. The pork is nicely seasoned, although salty and flaky but not overdone. There’s a big mound of the meat, too, throwing off lots of steam. Some pico de gallo and guacamole sit in a corner, and the rest of the plate is consumed by rice and beans.
Mezcal’s rice is fluffy and flavorful. One forkful and the diner will forever after start with the arroz, devour every grain, and, if space remains, take to the frijoles. The taquitos are just taquitos, and the tortilla soup accompanying it, remarkably bland.
A fountain with various drinks including guava and tamarindo juices and horchato is endearing, adding an air of authenticity.
Mezcal isn’t a date-night destination, but it is reliable and unpretentious.