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Viva Vallarta!

[whitespace] Aneil Saklikar
George Sakkestad

Healthy and Cheap: Customer Aneil Saklikar bites into a tasty burrito at Taqueria Vallarta.

Front-loaded by a high-speed band of young culinary compadres, Taqueria Vallarta rules its spicy stretch of Mexican food heaven

By Christina Waters

THE WORD "FAST" takes on new meaning at Taqueria Vallarta. Since it opened around five years ago, this sassy little taco palace has been smartly run by an army of young men all working in fast forward. You step up to the counter and place your order. While you get change from that $5 bill, your order is put together by high-speed hands. By the time you pour yourself an icy tamarindo agua fresca and locate a seat, your number is called--in two languages.

Make no mistake, Taqueria Vallarta is a quick trip to hippest Mexico. The large-screen TV holding down one corner of the ceiling is permanently tuned to Mexican stations--including the big soccer games, to the vocal delight of the clientele. The white tiles paving the floor and running halfway up the walls are authentic taqueria adornments, as are the two colorful murals facing each other across the main dining area. A baroque cathedral in Jalisco beams down on the no-nonsense tables and stationary chairs.

When the place first opened, the condiments sat on each table: bottles of wickedly hot salsa, those addictive pickled carrots and peppers, fresh radishes and acres of salsa fresca. Now there's a salsa bar in the corner where the faithful head the minute they have their quesadillas, nachos and burritos.

Today Taqueria Vallarta has a second outpost on 41st Avenue, but the mother ship still sits next to the Shoppers Corner parking lot. The place is still packed with a cross-generational, multiculti clientele, long on students, neighbors, families and teenagers with huge appetites. And the army of young men who run the place still move faster than you can.

Taqueria Vallarta

Jack and I hit Taqueria Vallarta last week for lunch before a matinee of Kubrick's beautifully vacant new film. The menu offers a "greatest hits" selection of taqueria favorites. Burritos, from the merely huge to those the size of an Aztec pyramid, share top billing with tacos filled with chicken, carne asada, BBQ pork, tongue, chile verde, and other meaty classics. We ordered a regular pollo burrito ($4) and three tacos: an al pastor (BBQ pork), a chile verde and my all-time favorite, the luscious shredded roast pork carnitas ($1.65 each). Jack grabbed a bottle of pink lemonade, and I poured a creamy horchata rice drink from the big plastic cooler. The whole thing came to $11.

"Burritos are volume food," Jack observed. "They deliver calories." And our burrito delivered calories in the form of chunks of lean chicken, red beans, salsa fresca and rice, all packed into a thick cylinder that would take three women, or one adolescent boy, about a half hour to consume.

The soft, open-faced tacos were piled high with steaming mixtures of meats and spices, all garnished with freshly chopped cilantro. The chile verde involved a generous mound of slow-stewed pork in a lemony tomatillo sauce. Jack loved the chile verde taco and barely let me have a bite. I loved the roast pork, practically caramelized to the point of moist crispiness. And the al pastor offered a balanced blaze of red salsa, barbecued pork and raw onions, topped with more of the pungent cilantro. The spiced carrots were incredible.

In the time it took us to plow through three tacos, two drinks and a third of a giant burrito, the high-energy guys behind the counter had finessed more than 35 more orders, Jack calculated. "This place makes McDonald's look slow," he observed. "And the food's all healthy."

Healthy and cheap. We enjoyed a meal for two for the price of an appetizer at any Mediterranean restaurant in town. Taqueria Vallarta--another reason why we don't live in New Jersey.

Taqueria Vallarta
Address: 608 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz (457-8226)
Also at 893 41st Ave., Santa Cruz (464-7022)
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 10-midnight; Sat.-Sun., 9-midnight
Prices: Inexpensive
Ambiance: **1/2 Lively, friendly, hip northern taqueria decor.
Cuisine: ** 1/2 Super-tasty taqueria fare served fast.
Overall: Genuine taqueria attitude in the heart of the county--right where it's needed.

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From the July 28-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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