Photograph by Curtis Cartier
SPICY GOODNESS: Owner Maria Espinoza dishes up a carne asada sope at Leo's.
Full Meal Deal at Leo's
Friendly neighborhood taco bar delivers lots for little
By Christina Waters
IF YOU'RE OUT near Pleasure Point and suddenly you and your soccer team find yourselves ravenous but short on cash, then by all means head on over to Leo's Taco Bar, where the plates are gigantic and the prices are low.
Leo's is a tiny hole in the wall at the end of a strip mall at the busy corner of 17th and Brommer. The atmosphere is strictly no-frills. In fact, Leo's, lined only with handwritten signs and one holy image of St. Martin giving his cloak to a beggar, defines no-frills.
The attitude is friendly, and we were immediately made to feel welcome by the folks behind the counter, all of whom were busy cooking and plating orders. We staked out one of Leo's five tables (this is obviously a carry-out kitchen) and then considered our lunch choices.
I'd heard good things about the house pozole, so I ordered the national hominy and pork soup ($7.25) plus a regular quesadilla ($4) and a tamarindo Jarritos ($1). Jack had his eye on a freshly char-grilled salmon taco with a side of beans and rice ($5.75). And when our orders arrived, they covered the entire table.
During the short wait for lunch, we hit the salsa stand and selected a few samples to go with our warm chips. Jack went for an emerald green tomatillo salsa, while I opted for the classic red salsa. Both were extremely mild—mild enough in flavor that we wondered about the target audience for Leo's cooking. Perhaps the industrious neighborhood eatery is aiming to please those who do not like it hot, i.e., diners like my mother who always inquire, tentatively: "It's not too hot, is it?" Well, she would have loved our lunch at Leo's.
Hot, gooey and slathered with sour cream and delicious guacamole, my quesadilla wedges were measurable in acres, not merely inches. The enormous bowl of pozole I retrieved from the counter was very full and much too hot. Loaded with hominy (a bit too much on the hominy side, actually), the pozole arrived with its own platter of traditional accompaniments. I quickly stepped up the flavor with handfuls of epazote, cilantro, tomatoes and a squeeze of lime. Then I threw in another handful of shredded cabbage for the crisp factor and, after waiting until the broth cooled down, began to enjoy. While the pozole hadn't yet simmered long enough for full fork-tenderness, the soup did offer plenty of lean pork.
Jack's salmon taco was a winner. Flavorful grilled salmon chunks had been tossed with a well-made salsa fresca and lots of cabbage and topped with diced tomatoes. This, in turn, was mounded high on a duo of soft tacos that had been frosted with beans. The balance between sweet salmon and earthy beans was very appealing, and after packing up most of the pozole for dinner, we polished off the salmon taco, as well as his side dish of very mild refried beans. As we left we agreed that the salmon taco—big enough for two to share—was the hit of the meal.
Leo's Taco Bar
1710 Brommer St., Santa Cruz
Open Mon–Sat 9am–9pm; Sun 9am–8pm
Send letters to the editor here.