On The Taco Trail
Take a Tasty Tour of Tempting Tacos—Traditional and Trailblazing
It is something special to live and eat in a place that so many different cultures call home. Where else could you find a taqueria serving spit-roasted tacos al pastor next door to a Vietnamese banh mi restaurant? Or what about a Cal-Mex restaurant that marries the two?
The humble taco is a well-loved icon of Mexican food that perfectly showcases the culture’s culinary contributions through vibrant flavors, colors and traditions. And where so many local ingredients mix and mingle to satisfy the cultural nuances of the Bay Area. Even better, no two chefs prepare tacos the same way. Each has a unique method, perhaps involving special regional ingredients, cooking techniques or a secret family recipe.
Our own backyard boasts an infinite number of restaurants and stands serving tacos prepared in every which way. From Morgan Hill at the southern tip of the valley all the way north along the Peninsula, we are surrounded by a profusion of delicious tacos served in the traditional and as well as reimagined styles.
So put on your shoes and head out to discover tacos with trending ingredients and special sauces on Edible Silicon Valley’s very own Taco Trail. ¡Provecho!
Tacos Ameca, Morgan Hill and Gilroy
Tacos Ameca has grown from humble beginnings as a taco truck in a parking lot in Gilroy to three brick-and-mortar locations in the Gilroy and Morgan Hill area. The restaurant takes its name from owner Juan Diaz’s hometown in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The tacos at Ameca are served on homemade corn tortillas and are best enjoyed topped with grilled jalapeños, onions and fresh avocado.
In addition to authentic taqueria fare, Ameca serves a special “vampiro”-style taco where corn tostadas are broiled with Oaxacan cheese until crispy and then topped with fresh grilled meat, such as the spit-roasted al pastor. Be sure to watch the tortillas being made. Can’t get much fresher than this!
Tacos El Compa, South San Jose
What began 15 years ago as a catering company started by two brothers has expanded into a small restaurant in South San Jose. Handmade tortillas and other freshly prepared ingredients all contribute to the restaurant’s growing popularity. “Cooking has been part of my life from a very young age,” says Chef-owner Hugo Hernandez. “It is the way I connect with my family and loved ones. Our name, Tacos El Compa, translated means ‘tacos my friend.’”
The dishes at Tacos el Compa are cooked from old family recipes. Hernandez says freshly prepared sauces, salsas and aguas frescas are what makes them stand out. “Fresh tortillas are a must for us because there is no more important aspect of Mexican food. The fresh tortillas really enhance all of the flavors of the tacos.”
Olla Cocina, San Jose
Olla Cocina is one of the newer restaurants in the lively San Pedro Square Market located in downtown San Jose. The urban cantina serves a menu of traditional Mexican shareable plates and entrées prepared with a fresh California flare in an airy, colorfully decorated restaurant space.
Alongside more traditional taco preparations such as al pastor, carne asada and chipotle-braised chicken, Olla Cocina also serves a popular duck carnitas taco that features braised duck on a black bean purée and topped with Oaxaca cheese, cilantro and a special jalapeño citrus coleslaw.
“I enjoy working with Bay Area vendors who share my passion for locally sourced produce,” says Chef Alex Jimenez. “I’m big fan of the local farmers market right here in San Pedro Square as it ensures that my ingredients are also always seasonal.”
Recipes shared: Margarita de Sangrita, Guacamole Cocina and Cilantro-Lime Dressing
Dia De Pesca, San Jose
This San Jose favorite is well-known and beloved for its fish tacos and other Mexican seafood specialties. The restaurant resembles a roadside stand due to the kitchen operating out of a stationary taco truck and the surrounding iron and stone furnishings. Spanish for “gone fishing,” Dia De Pesca offers a menu of seafood tacos including halibut, snapper, shrimp and even octopus.
Familiar Baja-style fish tacos that have been battered, deep-fried and served with a spicy crema are available, but the Dia De Pesca style is to sauté the fish in butter, which lets the fresh fish flavor truly stand out. While the fish tacos are the signature item, the “chickenitza” tacos with orange juice–marinated shredded chicken topped with cilantro and peanut sauces are equally popular for good reason.
Puesto, Santa Clara
After enjoying huge popularity in Southern California, Puesto recently opened its first Bay Area location in Santa Clara. Eric Adler and his brothers Alan and Alex were inspired by the gourmet ingredients such as filet mignon and squash blossoms used by Chef Luisteen Gonzalez in his San Diego taco catering business. The brothers teamed up with Gonzalez to start a restaurant that pays homage to Mexico City–style tacos using locally sourced California ingredients.
Puesto has been awarded numerous recognitions including the People’s Choice Award at LA Weekly’s Tacolandia festival three years in a row. The winning taco is a filet mignon taco served “costra” style with crispy melted cheese, avocado and a spicy serrano pepper and pistachio salsa. A version with chicken al pastor and a pineapple habanero salsa has also been a winner and customer favorite. The restaurant’s team is committed to sourcing local ingredients, including local oysters for their fried oyster taco served with a tomatillo mignonette and habanero pepper crema.
Recipe Shared: Puesto’s Spicy Pistachio Serrano Salsa
Loteria Taco Bar, San Jose at the SPQ Market
Carlos Perez, chef and owner of Loteria Taco Bar, describes his most memorable tacos as the ones he enjoyed in a nightclub parking lot with his father when he was a young boy growing up in San Jose. Perez’s cooking style was heavily influenced by regular visits with family members in Mexico. The taco bar is named for the Mexican card game he played growing up.
Before opening Loteria Taco Bar, Perez worked with world-famous chefs Wolfgang Puck in Los Angeles and Michael Mina in San Francisco. His cooks work from scratch every day using local and fresh ingredients. They have developed great relationships with local purveyors at the Downtown San Jose Farmers’ Market, such as Spade & Plow Organics in San Martin. The menu changes regularly as they balance classics such as the Baja-style fried cod tacos alongside the more adventurous braised lamb’s tongue tacos.
Recipe Shared: Loteria’s Lamb Shank Tacos
Sancho’s Taqueria, Palo Alto and Redwood City
Since 2005, Sancho’s Taqueria has been a favorite on the Peninsula for its Baja-style fish tacos. The restaurant’s three locations on the Peninsula—downtown and midtown Palo Alto and Redwood City’s Emerald Shores—are casual taqueria-style eateries decorated with colorful Mexican folkloric artwork. Sancho’s also takes its authentic Mexican fare out on the road in a taco truck.
Chef Adam Torres, who previously worked at fine-dining restaurants Boulevard and The Village Pub, says their fish taco, which incorporates fresh Pacific red snapper in a tempura-style batter, has been the best-selling dish since day one. A spicy, creamy chipotle remoulade is the perfect partner for the hot and crispy pieces of fried snapper. The taqueria also serves tacos prepared with traditional grilled and braised meats, such as carne asada and pork chile verde.
El Grullense, Multiple Locations: Peninsula
This popular local chain has grown from founder Rafael Guerrero’s modest food truck in Southern California to now more than 30 family-owned locations across the Peninsula. Their first restaurant location was established in Redwood City in 1987, and the empire now ranges from restaurants to strip mall taquerias to gas station taco stands.
The restaurants are inspired by the flavors of Jalisco, Mexico-—in fact the restaurant is named for the town of El Grullo in Jalisco where Rafael was raised. Beyond the extensive menu of traditional Mexican dishes, El Grullense is known for freshly made salsas and selection of street-truck-style tacos prepared with grilled meats such as the familiar carne asada and al pastor, as well as traditional Mexican specialties such as tripe and beef tongue.
Tacolicious, Palo Alto and San Jose
Before growing into a small chain of popular Bay Area restaurants, Sara Deseran and Joe Hargrove began Tacolicious in 2009 as a small stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. Deseran, who authored Tacolicious: Festive Recipes for Tacos, Snacks, Cocktails and More, describes Tacolicious as “a Cal-Mex restaurant with a San Francisco sensibility.” The tacos are prepared with sustainable fish, humanely raised meats and seasonal produce. Local ingredients can be found throughout the menu, including Rancho Gordo heirloom beans from Napa and organic rice from Rue & Forsman Ranch in Yuba City.
The seasonally driven menu offers an eclectic and ever-changing range of taco creations from the traditional(ish) to the downright adventurous. The guajillo-braised beef taco, served with zesty cilantro and tangy pickled red onions, has been a fan favorite since first being served at the farmers market. Those looking for tacos nouveau may enjoy the equally popular banh mi taco, which brings the Vietnamese sandwich to taco form.
Recipes Shared: Guajillo-Braised Beef Beef Short-Rib Tacos and Cumin-Lime Crema from Sara Dresden’s cookbook Tacolicious: Festive Recipes for Tacos, Snacks, Cocktails, and More (Ten Speed Press, 2014).