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Tortilla Dreams

An East Bay ex-pat discovers that the best way to get Mexican food is to buy a ticket home


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When I left the East Bay in 1997, bound for New England, I was warned of the cold winters, upturned noses, and bad produce. But no one ever told me about the Mexican food. All I can say about Mexican food in Rhode Island is that, by the end of my first year there, I was looking through the yellow pages to try to find a Chevy’s in Providence. Nearly a decade later, I still live on the East Coast. It’s a relatively happy exile, as long as I can come back every few months and gorge myself on mole, crispy tacos, and carne asada at some of the East Bay’s wonderful Mexican restaurants. Here’s my hit list.

El Farolito

This hole-in-the-wall taqueria, located a few paces from Concord’s Salvio Pacheco Square, also has a San Francisco location, which is deep in the Mission District and enjoys a 2 a.m. rush of clubgoers. The Concord location draws more working-class Mexican Americans than urban hipsters, but you’ll find El Farolito’s famed super burrito—a four-inch-wide monster stuffed with everything from chile verde pork to whole chiles rellenos—unaltered. The enormous flour tortillas are grilled to a golden brown and have a wonderful elastic chewiness. El Farolito’s smooth, rich refried beans are pure magic. The quesadilla suiza—two flour tortillas oozing jack cheese and filled with the meat of your choice, such as juicy, flavorful grilled chicken—is another popular pick. 1842 Grant St., Concord, (925) 363-3940

El Faro

El Faro is the sort of taqueria where native Mexicans choose to eat. It’s not surprising, considering that the house torta will take you to sandwich nirvana. The bread is light as air, the kitchen has a generous hand with the mayonnaise, and the carnitas filling is so tender and moist it’s like a spread. Pickled jalapeños, slivered white onion, shredded lettuce, and slices of red tomato perfectly balance all the rich ingredients. Watch out, McDonald’s, this torta Mexicana is coming to get you. The burritos at El Faro could feed a small woman for three days, and the fillings—such as big, plump shrimp sautéed with peppers—are succulent. 2280 Monument Blvd., Concord, (925) 827-0976

Casa Orozco

Casa Orozco is a great place to know about when you’re craving Mexican food in the Tri-Valley. Its Livermore location has a spacious patio, and the Dublin location is in the midst of a remodel and expansion. It’s hard not to fill up on the freshly fried tortilla chips, but you’ll want to save room for the sizzling fajitas, which come served in a mini cast-iron skillet. Burritos are a good bet here, too. They come topped with enough shredded lettuce to count as a salad. 325 S. L St., Livermore, (925) 449-3045; 7995 Amador Valley Blvd., Dublin, (925) 828-5464; www.casaorozco.com

Chavinda

Chavinda is the town in Michoacán, Mexico, from which the owners of this popular strip mall eatery hail. Judging by the lunchtime rush, their move to Martinez has been a success. The plating here is strictly utilitarian: Tacos, tamales, enchiladas, and chalupas are all loaded onto Styrofoam. But after your first bite, you won’t care about packaging. The red chili sauce on the enchiladas and tamales hits a nice smoky note with a slightly hot finish, and the pork in the tacos and chalupas is stewed down with chilies to the point that it’s almost like a ragout. Top your order with a pour of the spicy tomatillo salsa—it’s super fresh and packs a wallop. 514 Center Ave., Martinez, (925) 370-0117

New Mecca Café

New Mecca feels like it came out of the pages of a western novel. An ancient Camel cigarette machine stands by the register, neon beer signs crowd the walls, and regulars seated at red barstools line the long, narrow restaurant. The guacamole here is fantastic: It’s made with perfectly ripe avocado and gets a nice tang from green onion and fresh jalapeño upon request. New Mecca’s carne guisada doesn’t fool around. It’s hot and loaded with big chunks of fresh jalapeños, onions, and bell peppers. Even if you’re ordering to go (as many customers do, especially for parties), you’ll get the complimentary bean dip topped with cheese and chili sauce. 324 Railroad Ave., Pittsburg, (925) 432-7433; catering, (925) 432-2607

Blue Agave Club

On a summer evening, it’s hard to beat the spacious patio and top-shelf margaritas at Blue Agave Club. The tequila selection, some of which is on display in glass cases, is vast, and the waiters—a crew of manly men in black leather vests—add to the Mexican flair. The tortilla soup topped with crumbled cheese and strips of fried corn tortilla is delicious, and entrées are upscale. Try the Salmon Viva Mexico—a well-grilled piece of fish in a creamy tomatillo sauce—or the camarones Xochitl—crisp shrimp in a dark, sweet sauce made with cuitlacoche, a kind of black mushroom that grows on corn. 625 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 417-1224, www.blueagaveclub.com

Doña Tomás

Dona Savitsky and Thomas Schnetz were on to something in 1999 when they opened a Mexican restaurant where the watchword is elegant, not enormous. The sopa de lima and quesadillas filled with goat cheese and wild mushrooms were so popular that they opened a snack shop, Tacubaya, on Berkeley’s Fourth Street in 2003. Schnetz’s tender carnitas (made with Niman Ranch pork, of course) deserve all the buzz they’ve enjoyed over the years, as does his simple but truly awesome guacamole. And all the drinks are made from scratch, so the Mojito rises above any trend, and the Caipirinha (a Brazilian Mojito, sans mint) will knock your socks off. 5004 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 450-0522, www.donatomas.com

Cactus Taqueria

Cactus Taqueria typifies that specialized sub-cuisine known as Berk-Mex. The food is casual yet serious and includes San Francisco Mission–style burritos made with Manna Foods chicken and Niman Ranch meat; tostadas topped with crisp lettuce, shaved radishes, and cabbage; and fresh tubs of house-made horchata (a cold, sweet rice drink). The crispy tacos—stuffed with roasted vegetables and cheese, or the meat or seafood of your choice—are mind-blowingly good, like none I’ve tasted elsewhere. Cactus is the perfect place to bring the kids when mom and dad don’t feel like cooking, which explains the sometimes-less-than-spotless tables. 1881 Solano Ave., Berkeley, (510) 528-1881; 5642 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 658-6180, www.cactustaqueria.com

Juan’s Place

You don’t go to Juan’s Place for haute cuisine, seasonal produce, or any sort of fusion. You go to Juan’s Place when you want a Negra Modelo, a chile relleno, and an enchilada smothered with red sauce and cheese. It’s also a good place to watch Morelia take on Veracruz in Mexican club soccer. The flour tortilla chips and wine margaritas get a lot of hype, and for good reason. But true Juan’s-heads relish the mole, a subtle and perfectly chocolaty concoction with a kick of heat at the end. 941 Carleton St., Berkeley, (510) 845-6904

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