When the salsa bar kicks, let it

Taqueria El Festival

8345 Folsom Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95826

Taqueria El Festival is not part of chain, as Tracy initially thinks. There’s a Sacramento chain of Mexican restaurants that call themselves La Favorita Taqueria in more ethnically diverse neighborhoods and La Fiesta Taqueria in less ethnically diverse ones.

Tracy Fairchild and I got to be pals during the energy crisis, when Duke Energy employed her public-relations firm. Partly through her skill—and the company’s actions—Duke appeared to be the least contemptible of the corporate war criminals scamming California. Now, Tracy is the hardworking chief of staff to state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat.

She must be hardworking, since substantial negotiation occurs before a tiny window is shoehorned into her Decade-at-a-Glance planner in which we can drive out to Folsom Boulevard past Power Inn Road to the Raley’s-dominated shopping center containing El Festival.

Like so many shopping centers visited since this odyssey began last November, there’s empty retail space. The taqueria, however, is anything but. In front of the cashier, there’s a good-sized line of customers waiting to order. Most of the tables are full or occupied. Diners are stacking up at the authoritative salsa bar like planes over O’Hare.

For good reason. The menu is varied. Portions are plentiful. Prices are reasonable. For Tracy, who trends vegetarian, there’s a healthy array of options.

Telegraphing the almost always good news that it’s a family-run operation, the infant son of one of the servers reclines in a car seat on the floor next to one of the tables. The rest of the family likes the lil’ kiddo to be there, she explains.

Just as it is every jueves y viernes, pozole is the day’s special. Yes, please. And a $1.75 carnitas taco. Of the nine veggie-only options, Tracy settles on the $9.49 chiles rellenos. Should one’s “vegetarian” reach include aquatic fare, there’s another eight camarones offerings all at $10.29, fried tilapia and the intriguing tostadas de ceviche at $2.75.

Cardboard could be the entree and El Festival’s festive salsa bar would spark seconds just for another dive into the fabulous fixings. The smoky, chunky roja with onions and cilantro has pizazz and a catch-you-by-surprise afterburn. The lime-tasting verde is another winner. Radishes, pickled green beans—nicely spiced but given the volume available, not the lunch crowd’s top choice—well-blended escabeche, lime wedges, pico de gallo and, lo mejor: lemon-soaked, paprika-sprinkled circular onion slices.

The carnitas taco morphs into an onion taco with a hint of well-seasoned pork. Salsa roja lava flows from its summit. Lingua, cabeza, tripas and chorizo are some of the other meat options worthy of onion smothering and roja drenching.

On Tracy’s plate, plump and plentiful fresh pasilla chiles are centered in a sea of cheese-splattered beans. The server forgets Tracy’s rice, but that would have been just as well, since after a taste or two it’s discarded as too larded up—literally.

If the rellenos are large, the pozole is Brobdingnagian. The requisite patina of international-disaster orange-colored grease is present. Awaiting immersion are mounds of onion, cabbage and cilantro, a couple of lemon wedges and two fried tortillas. A classy and authentic touch is a shaker of Mexico’s signature spice, epazote.

Epazote-enhanced, the stew is tangy and toothsome, although a little light on pork chunks. Hoards of hominy, however.

Given the scope of our portions, we marvel at what might constitute the $5.49 quesadilla gigante and speculate on the level of starvation required to consume it.

Like the epic Lalo’s on 24th Street, El Festival offers a molcajete plate. El Festival’s is $13.99; Lalo’s is $10, but just the dish’s appearance on the menu adds style points. So does the freshly squeezed carrot and orange juice.

Variety, value, vérité and a kick-ass salsa bar raises El Festival from very appealing to authoritative.