Wrong barrio

East Sac Midtown Taqueria

3754 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 452-7551

Shall we have a little Sacramento geography review? Midtown, as I understand it, runs from 16th Street east to the freeway. On the other side of the freeway, East Sacramento begins. This is a lesson apparently learned the hard way by the oddly named East Sac Midtown Taqueria—initially Midtown Taqueria, but it’s on J Street, a good ways east of the freeway. Presumably, nearby East Sacramentans made their feelings known, and at some point, the “East Sac” was added.

From the outside, it’s a straight-up clone of the La Fiesta Taqueria oligarchy, even copying the whimsically cartoonish font used to spell out “taqueria.” From the inside, it turns out, it’s much of the same as well, though the food is a bit spottier. I guess you can’t blame them for adopting a successful formula—and, granted, few are looking for extreme innovation in a no-frills taqueria—but it’s unfortunate that the execution isn’t always as good as it could be. The counter service was a little grumpy, the food uneven.

Still, it’s a lively spot—the early Friday night dinner hour is definitely popular with neighborhood families, who streamed in and out constantly, and the tables and chairs are colorful. A patio, situated under a palapa-style grass roof, is obviously disused at this chilly time of year, but I can imagine that it would be a nice enough spot for a Negra Modelo (they offer your basic Mexican beers plus fountain drinks) or a cooling agua fresca in the warmer weather.

The menu is replete with the standards; tacos (soft and crispy), quesadillas, burritos and tostadas, with a choice of the usual assortment of meats; “platillos” (combos of meat or enchiladas or the like, with rice and beans); and mariscos (focused mainly on shrimp), from cocktel de camarones to seafood enchiladas. There’s a breakfast menu, too, and the establishment opens at 9 a.m. daily. There’s also a chips station with a salsa bar. I loved the jade-green avocado salsa, bright-tasting and fresh with a creamy texture, and an earthy, hot red sauce. The fresh-chopped pico de gallo suffered by comparison, with its sadly wan out-of-season tomatoes; the only flavor that dominated the whole was onion. The chips were your basic chips, salty, crunchy and a suitable vessel for other foods.

On one morning visit, I sussed out the breakfast options, which are mostly egg-based, and ended up with a breakfast burrito, stuffed with oozy orange chorizo (held together with a modicum of scrambled egg) and globs of gooey cheese, together with a smattering of rice, what seemed to be refried beans (I think whole pintos would have been more texturally appealing), and a very little bit of fresh salsa, detectable mainly because of the crunch of raw onions. It was a real gut-buster of an item, tasty enough with its spicy chorizo for the first few bites, but I find it hard to imagine the situation or appetite that would call for finishing it.

For dinner, we ordered a big assortment of tacos, a cocktel, and one of the platillos, the pork al pastor. The latter was a huge pile of small, rather chewy pieces of meat coated in reddish spices and glistening with a little more grease than one might like. The spicing—not too hot, but with depth and just a little zing—was good, but the meat itself tasted a touch old. The rice and beans alongside were not especially distinctive, though the beans seemed to me more than usually gloopy. Shreds of lettuce, an anemic tomato slice, and a side of warm, soft flour tortillas rounded out the plate.

The cocktel de camarones was highly flavored—a little too much so, I thought, being both too salty and too sweet. This brothy dish, like cold soup, is often made with a squirt of ketchup; there’s nothing wrong with that, but here, it tasted like the ketchup had been turned up to 11. It, or those same saline-syrupy flavors, needed to be dialed back down in favor of the more subtle lime-tomato tang. On another visit, I’d picked up a cocktel de camarones that was more balanced, so perhaps it was an aberration. I liked the silky cubes of avocado and the generous helping of shrimp, balanced by the vegetables’ cold crunch.

The tacos—one crispy with carne asada as the filling; two soft with grilled fish and lengua (tongue)—were another mixed bag. For the crispy taco, the shell tasted old and stale, and the finely chopped meat was tender and beefy, but devoid of any other flavor from the grill or a marinade. The old-school taco was so overstuffed with lettuce, just-passable guacamole, cheese and salsa that it was all but impossible to pick up. The fish taco, on the other hand, offered succulent flesh and a pleasantly spicy sauce on the basic white fish. The lengua was so-so: chewy in spots, tender in others.

I left with the distinct feeling that this taqueria will play its assigned role in the neighborhood: It’s not terribly inspired, perhaps, but serviceable when you want to spend under $10 for your dinner, and you’re in East Sacramento—rather than Midtown.