Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tacos Salceados, Tijuana: The Taco Center of the Universe

Sometime in the spring of 2008 I had made my first visit to Tacos Salceados in the La Mesa neighborhood in Tijuana. I can't count how many times I've been there, nor how many friends I've led down to what I refer to as the taco center of the universe. An early post on my blog documented a trip with a friend during the summer of 2008 released some of the first Baja gems I had been keeping under wraps.

Since the CAT was out of the bag, I've been trickling these places out over the last couple of years, but realized that I hadn't dedicated a specific post to just Tacos Salceados.

Tacos Salceados is simply referred to as La Ermita, named after the street where it's located. When a place is so revered and adored by the local diners, it needs no name. Certainly there are other taquerias and stands on Av. Ermita, but most any Tijuanan can only think of the one. Like the hippest club in LA that has no sign, but only a curious velvet rope with a lone black suited guy donning an earpiece, La Ermita is that place everyone wants to get in to, but there are no fashion or hipster credentials necessary. This is a place for all, and the only hurdle is finding a table, because this place is usually packed.

Salceados translates to sauciers. The taqueria is the creation of former saucier Javier Campos Gutierrez.

After having devoured tacos from all over Mexico, and made these many return visits to La Ermita, the significance of the place finally struck me. It's a traditional taqueria that combines the northern meat intensive taco conventions, the southern stewed taco customs, the skills of a line kitchen, street taquero speed and chops, with an originality that elevates these tacos to street art. There are the fancy tacos in upscale Mexican restaurants, and many cookbooks that will show you how to make designer tacos with pesto or mango salsas. Salceados is no such place. They make street tacos without pretense.

Immediately upon taking a seat at the bar, or at one of the tables, even the casual observor can judge that this is no ordinary taqueria. The pickled vegetables, called escabeche, contain julienned carrots, aromatic herbs, and are full-bodied from the addition of locally produced olive oil. No canned jalapenos which "may contain some carrots", nor the usual escabeches. Quality and signature condiments are evidence of greatness in street food.

The house amuse bouche are cucumbers topped with one of the house made cremas.

The salsa bar is a whole other level of adornment. Many salsas are thickened with egg whites and feature an array of flavors:tamarind, almond, hibiscus,or strawberry. They use the standard chiles, habanero,chile de arbol,jalapeno, guajillo, but also use chile pasilla,chilaca,and chilepin to dleve into more complex spice profiles. They have 50 or more of these salsas and cremas, but only keep around 10 or so out at a time. I remember two years ago I counted around 38 of them at the salsa bar. It is a challenge walking over to that cache. Don't be afraid to ask for a recommendation to go with your various tacos.

The tacos have an attractive presentation. On the line, two women crank out made-to-order corn and flour tortillas(each taco can come with either of your choice). Meats are grilled, placed atop the tortilla, and then steamed using an aluminum mixing bowl covering the taco on the grill, the taqueros squirt water from a bottle under the bowl, then let them steam for a moment. Marcos, who seems to be the manager of the operation, does just about everthing, but I fondly remember him deftly plating the tacos on the line back in the early days with the grace and form of a Tai Chi master. He would cooly slice perfect avocados thin and fan them out across the taco, then add finishing salsas and cremas.

The cactus taco(above), has asada, cactus, and melted cheese. The steam gives the taco wetness, with the tender, and savory steak. All components melt into a mouth orgy of flavor.

The chiles gueros at Tacos Salceados are the best I've ever had. Instead of pico de gallo salt and lime, the chiles are covered with salt and pepper, and are wading in a shallow broth of soy sauce and lime juice.

The lengua taco has single slice of lovely beef tongue, that gets an assist from cheese, tasty corn tortilla, and a tomatillo salsa.

The marlin has bright red flesh. This version isn't very far from the typical street marlin taco, but with an added lushness from the signature cremas.

Tacos Salceados favors sauce over the usual onion, lime and cilantro. In Mexico City, the tacos filled with stews, called tacos de guisado, have no need for such condimentation, and at times require no salsa.

This is the best of both worlds. Tacos are about wetness.Traditional Northern tacos meld tender meats, a squeeze of lime , salsa, cilantro, and onions with heat to create this melt in your mouth affect. That's why tacos should be eaten immediately after delivery from a taqueros hand. Here this is achieved through moisture from the layered salsas and cremas.

The taco made with local shrimp and scallops is sublime.

But, if you get only one taco at Salceados, don't know who would DO such a thing, it would have to be the quesataco. This was Javier's creation, and it has caught on all over Tijuana. Monterrey jack cheese is fried on the grill and the proteins are tucked into the cheese bed, where it is formed into what resembles a cheese tamal. I ordered this one with NY steak and shrimp. They are poplar by themselves, or you can have them on a tortilla.The quesataco translates to cheese taco.

It is arguably one of the best tacos you will ever have, a flavor an texture blend that will excite your pleasure centers and set the hairs on your back to stand up. Everyone who tries the questaco for the first time always looks at me and just goes, "ummmmmmmmmmm!" for a while, smiling, shaking their heads and nodding.

The fresa taco, or taco dulce(sweet) is another feat worthy of your attention. Savory meats or seafood in a mango puree are wrapped in the quesataco. Purees of strawberry, cherry, and chopped pecans are spread on the taco adding a sweetness that clashes with the toothsome protein, then crumbles in to a heap of perfection in your mouth.

The tacos are not going to be had for a dollar, more like around a couple bucks each. It's a little more for a flour tortilla, as they pack more taco. But, you will find yourself in a comfortable place after two of these, and three tacos will take you out for the evening.

Despite Tacos Salceados being the only taqueria of its kind in the world, it always looks and feels like a huble neighborhood taqueria. The patrons are just middle class Tijuanans looking for a great taco. You see everything from teenage gothic kids, to old men in cowboy hats, students, to large groups of family and friends grabbing a bite after checking out the latest flick at the Cinepolis(local movie theater chain).

Get a seat up at the bar and watch the show. The taqueros are like some of the best I've seen in Mexico, and have adapted their street smarts to the line kitchen. There's still alot of style and play in their delivery.

It seems that tacos are a form of religion and a way of life to many on both sides of the border. If this is the case, then those of us who've been should start hearing confession. "Have you been to tacos La Ermita?"

Some of these photos were taken by my friend Tomoko, who had recently gone with me to Baja for the first time. After all these years of taking friends, I realized I had only a few pictures. Thanks Tomo! They're the best pictures on my blog. Uh....I think you can tell which ones are hers.

Tacos Salceados
Avenida Ermita Norte 30
La Mesa
Tijuana, B.C., Mexico


Gastronomer said...

LOVE this place! Take me back, Bill!

streetgourmetla said...

Haha, hey Cathy, you do need to make a proper tasting of this place, not a end of day exhausted and despondant nibbling! We will go back.

Anonymous said...

I have to respectfully disagree about this taqueria....The tacos I had were completely over-sauced which made them goopy and taste the same...I couldn't in good conscience recommend this place when there are so many good and great taco shops in TJ.

streetgourmetla said...

Hello anonymous--when this was written almost three years ago, Tacos Salceados was in its prime--between 2008-2010 when I was a regular--but then the head taquero left to open Takesos y Papas. But, there are only these two places for this style of taco. I now go to Takesos and haven't been back to Salceados in years. Ultimately, this is Mexico--if you don't want a of of sauce--all you have to do is say so--you're the boss.