A few years ago, when I was a broke college student, I went out with a friend (who also happens to be Mexican) at the only decent taco restaurant in town. As we stood there jangling our pocket change, we contemplated which $3.95-$5.00 taco we were going to indulge in. My friend let out a sigh. “Why is a shrimp taco more than fish taco?” she grumbled. “Mexican food is basically the same filling in different kinds of tortilla.”
It was a self-deprecating joke on her part, but her question did make me wonder: Why is the most iconic Mexican street food priced at more than $3? Is there a way to elevate the humble tortilla, filling and at-no-extra-cost salsa?
The answer is yes. But I only figured it out when I became a bill-paying adult, shopping at the Everyone’s Harvest Farmers Market in Marina.
There, I’ve been coming to Taquitos Hernandez because it’s convenient and because I don’t have $50 to spend on eggs benedict and bottomless mimosa Sunday brunch specials. I do, however, have spare change and an undying craving for tacos any time of the week, including mornings.
If you’re a first-timer this is how I recommend you proceed.
Go with the “nasty” bits in taco form. Though the thought of cabeza (head), lengua (tongue) andtripas (stomach lining) may make some squeamish, here these usually pungent and funky fillings have a seriously mellow savor. They’re tangy and beefy, and not overly gamey. Plus, they get a hit of crispy caramelization from the flat-top grill, sizzling off any associated ooey-gooeyness.
It comes topped with cilantro and onions and – depending on the day – is finished with a creamy and extra-spicy salsa.
Tacos are priced at $2.50 each. A meal deal taco plate for $10 comes with rice and beans, too. (I find their rice can be hit or miss; when they miss, it’s a little too sodden.)
Beyond my advice, trust the crowd: On my last two visits, Taquitos Hernandez sold out of thetripas and cabeza by 11am.
In that case, another reliable option is the empanadas ($3) – the textural heaven-sent item of the street food gods. Taquitos Hernandez’s version is unique. Authentic in shape, they ditch traditional empanada pie crust-like dough in favor of the same mother dough used for tortillas, filled with the same meat choices as tacos.
But fear not – there is no redundancy here. Empanadas are thicker than their taco tortillas, with a crispy exterior while remaining light and fluffy on the inside. The fillings are less charred than in tacos, but retain a good amount of moisture. They come covered in crunchy cabbage and a delightfully herby salsa verde. My favorite filling for empanadas is the borrego, a tender stewed lamb that has only a hint of gamey flavor.
My final piece of advice: experiment. Spending $20 on a flavorful brunch for two, mix and match tacos and empanadas. It will go further than $20 on bottomless anything.
TAQUITOS HERNANDEZ is at four farmers markets weekly: 9am-2pm Saturdays at Main and Alisal streets, Salinas; 10am-2pm Sundays at 215 Reservation Road, Marina; 3-5pm Mondays at 150 Grand Ave., Pacific Grove; 4-8pm Thursdays at 11261 Crane St., Castroville. 710-9016.