Here in the 209 we have a bounty of delicious Mexican restaurants to tempt our taste buds, so when we started creating our Taco Tour of the 209, the task before us appeared pretty daunting. There are just so many good options out there.
When deciding on which eateries to visit for our taco tour we set out to find places that were putting a creative spin on the well-known dish, or had a special focus that set their tacos apart from others, or had garnered a reputation for perfecting tradition. By no means is this list all inclusive or the best, but rather is a sampling of some of the hidden gems out there ready to delight your tastebuds.
StreetZlan: The Street Food Project
Silva spent countless hours in the kitchen with his grandmother and other relatives learning their tricks and recipes, but the idea of becoming a professional chef never entered his orbit.There are some days when Erick Silva looks around his restaurant, Streetzlan: The Street Food Project and can’t help but smile just for the mere thought that this is where life has brought him.
For that, Silva has to give credit to an infomercial.
“I had dropped out of college and was working part-time at Sears and not knowing what I was going to do,” Silva said. “I was flipping through the channels and stopped on this infomercial for a culinary academy. It caught my attention and I thought this was something I would like to try.”
Silva’s hunch about his future was correct. He is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and has worked in fine dining restaurants specializing in Japanese, French, and Spanish cuisines. He has operated a catering business and is now the chef owner, along with his wife Jessica Silva, of Streetzlan, an eatery in downtown Galt that is a favorite among the city’s residents.
To peg StreetZlan as a Mexican restaurant doesn’t quite describe all the flavors the restaurant incorporates.
“Mexican food has very specific flavors and tastes, and while we have that, we’re also putting together new flavors to make something that stands out on its own.”
Silva says his menu is highly influenced by flavors from around the globe. Perhaps the best descriptor of his culinary style is Alta California, the style of cooking that elevates classic Mexican cuisine.
That idea is expressed in the restaurant’s name that Silva says is a “bridge between concept and culture.”
“I wanted to take street food and elevate it by using higher quality ingredients and cooking with some finesse,” Silva said. “The Zlan represents the old Spanish and name brings them together.”
The tacos offered at StreetZlan all start with handmade corn tortillas with distinctive spices and flavors added to highlight the rest of the ingredients.
The fish taco features River Rock Brewery beer-battered cod served on a blue corn tortilla and completed with avocado, purple cabbage, and a spicy sauce drizzled on top.
Another option to try is the sweet corn taco, which is served with Cotija cheese and crema, baby cilantro greens, and Guajillo mayonnaise.
One of the more popular taco options at StreetZlan is the vaquero taco, where the carne asada is topped with melted Monterey Jack cheese, salsa macha, cilantro, onions, quest fresco, and served in an open flame tortilla with a side of consume for dipping.
“You won’t get these flavors anywhere else,” Silva said.
— Sabra Stafford
415 C St., Galt
11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday;
11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday;12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.
When Agave Azul owners Sandra, Mabel and Gabriela Lujan wanted to step outside the realm of their parents’ farming business in Hughson, they knew opening a restaurant where customers could find authentic Mexican cuisine was the best road to take. Sandra and Gabriela combined their knowledge of the business world with their sister Mabel’s cooking expertise, and in 2012, Agave Azul opened its doors.
While Agave Azul is known for dishes like their Agave Enchiladas, Azteca Chicken and molcajete made from fresh ingredients grown on their parents’ farm, they also have a special taco that shouldn’t be missed. Agave Tacos feature flour tortillas dipped in a red sauce, then stuffed with their grandmother’s homemade chorizo, carne asada, cilantro, onions and queso fresco.
— Kristina Hacker
6724 E. Whitmore Ave., Hughson
10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday;
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday;
10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday;
9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Tucked away in a beautiful courtyard in downtown Turlock is La Mo Restaurant. The Latin-inspired California bistro prides itself on serving up dishes made from scratch with the freshest ingredients from local vendors.
While known for their tamales — they host annual tamale-making classes that sell out each time — La Mo also knows how to make a refreshingly light and tasty fish taco.
Featuring mahi-mahi, the grilled fish sits atop a handmade corn tortilla and is finished with shredded Napa cabbage, guacamole and cheese. They also serve up tacos with prawns, flank steak, grilled chicken or carnitas.
— Kristina Hacker
310 E. Main St., Turlock
8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite
The restaurant at Rush Creek Lodge in Groveland, just outside Yosemite, is the perfect stop for a taco in the mountains.
Executive Chef Tony Lemens created a menu with a fusion of cultures and flavors for the travelers near and far. For those that love tacos a must have at Rush Creek during summer travels are the Barbeque Brisket Tacos served with a cilantro lime slaw on a corn tortilla. During the summer they also offer a poolside barbeque (for guests only) with a few options like the house smoked beef brisket that is ancho chili rubbed, al pastor which is pork with chilis, spices and pineapple, Mahi Mahi al Mojo de Ajo with garlic, citrus, and cilantro, street corn with lime crema, cotija cheese, chives and ancho chile powder and, of course, sides of pinto beans and Spanish rice. However, travelers can enjoy the brisket tacos at the restaurant or tavern and not be a guest at the Lodge.
In October, Chef Tony will add Korean BBQ duck tacos to the menu which are a fusion of cultures where he uses a French style slow cooked duck confit, Korean BBQ sauce, and a kimchi slaw made in-house with pickled carrots and cucumber.
— Virginia Still
34001 Highway 120, Groveland
Noon to 4 p.m. daily for lunch;
5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily for dinner
Taqueria Sonora owner Sergio Jimenez said that the original family-owned business began with a Taqueria Manteca in Manteca over 20 years ago, making their family recipes a go-to taqueria in the Valley.
Several years ago, a few family members took a trip to Black Oak Casino and stirred up an appetite, then they looked for a place that served up good tacos. They were unable to find something to satisfy their taste buds so they decided to bring a taqueria to Sonora. They have done just that, with help from Sonia and Maria Jimenez and Paco Contreras. They have been open now for about six years and have become famous in Sonora for their offerings.
“We were looking for some good tacos and we tried some different places and we didn’t like them,” said Jimenez. “So, we decided to bring some good tacos here.”
Tacos are served on a daily basis at Taqueria Sonora and there is a variety of tacos to choose from including the crispy taco, street taco or the taco flour tortilla that can be filled with meats like carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, pollo or pollo asado. Street tacos are $1 on Taco Tuesday at the Taqueria.
Their chips are homemade, as well as their assortment of salsas in all heat varieties from hot to hotter to medium and mild; all are made from scratch and change on occasion.
— Virginia Still
74 S. Washington St., Sonora
10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Bella Nita Grill and Bar
"Everyone loves tacos, right?" said Kendra Sanders. She and her husband Tim opened Bella Nita in February, continuing a family tradition started in 1963 by Joe A. and Leonila Perez. Bella Nita is named for the youngest of their five children, 4-year-old Bella Nita.
Sanders said their unique tacos are fajita tacos, carnitas tacos and street tacos.
The fajita tacos served with soft corn tacos have chicken breast or steak marinated in beer and wine. They are served with bell peppers and onions and are a very popular offering. It is part of their bar menu food array.
Bella Nita's carnitas tacos have specially made shredded pork that is seasoned and marinated, fixed in a homemade style and garnished with fresh pico de gallo on top.
Sanders says the street taco features carne asada steak, served street-style with onions and cilantro. It's very popular with customers and served street-style like you would get from a taco truck.
Tacos are one of the staples of the restaurant, Sanders says. Bella Nita also serves conventional tacos with ground beef or chicken.
— Doane Yawger
2684 Shaffer Rd., Atwater
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday;
10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday;
9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday;
8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
Ricky’s Grub Shack
Patterson native Ricky Arteaga opened up Ricky’s Grub Shack in Patterson over a decade ago. The restaurant has many items including hamburgers, fries, chicken and waffles, wings and a large verity of Mexican food. From burritos to flautas, from quesadillas to enchiladas, Ricky’s has you covered. They also offer several different types of tacos.
One of the most original items on the menu is the “quesito.” Arteaga made this creation one night when he could not decide if he wanted to eat a quesadilla or a taco.
“I was not sure what I wanted so I mixed the two together. The next day it made it on the menu,” he said.
The original concoction, and one of the standout items on the menu with his customers, is made with two flour tortillas with melted cheese between them. Arteaga then adds a third tortilla where he piles on a street taco.
His meat is trimmed on site each morning and is fresh.
“That’s one of the things that separate us from other taquerias and restaurants, that we trim our meat every day. We eliminate the fat and gristle and only serve the best cuts.”
— Dennis D. Cruz
31 S. 3rd St., Patterson
9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday;
available weekends for catering
When J&R Tacos opened in downtown Merced, owners Janna Rodriguez and Oscar Torres wanted to create an establishment that would stand apart from all the other taco shops in the area. It turned out their customers would show them the way forward.
Torres had the restaurant experience and Rodriguez had an overall vision for the restaurant she wanted to open. Together the two started sketching out their ideas and two years later in 2006, they were opening the doors to the downtown eatery with a mission of putting a healthy twist on Mexican cuisine.
“We were already using healthier options in our cooking,” said Torres. “Most Mexican cuisine uses lard, but we don’t — we use a minimum amount of vegetable oil. We were using fresh ingredients already too, but our customers were asking us to make options that were organic, or vegetarian or vegan. The demand was there, so we started meeting it.”
The taco selection includes some well-tried options like carne asada and carnitas, but also has some healthier options, like the tofu taco or the vegetarian taco. With all options, the chefs are using local produce and meats brought in daily.
“We don’t use a freezer,” Torres said. “Everything we use is being brought in daily.”
The tofu taco uses the same marinade as the pastor tacos, to make for a deep flavored and spicy taco with an appealing crunch and just the right hint of lime. The vegetarian taco features rice and beans and is topped with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and cheese.
Another healthy option are the spicy fish tacos, which feature grilled fish rather than battered and are topped with fresh pico de gallo and crema with a hint of chipotle.
The restaurant also has an extensive list of hand-made tortilla options, including wheat, jalapeno, tomato and spinach.
— Sabra Stafford