Taqueria Los Altos
Thursday, July 2, 1998
If you were under the impression that taqueria food just means tacos, it's time to think again. A visit to Taqueria Los Altos will dispel that notion, and trick you into thinking that you've just crossed over the border at the same time. It's probably safe to say that if you enjoy Mexico, in fact, breakfast, lunch or dinner in this buzzing section of Salinas may whet your appetite for a trip to visit our neighbor to the south.
Almost five years ago, Jose Hernandez named his new business after the Los Altos area of Jalisco, Mexico, that had been his home two decades ago. After a long career in the ag industry, he decided on doing a restaurant specializing in Mexican-style seafood, a niche that seemed to be lacking despite the number of taquerias beginning to appear on the scene. Choosing a busy location not far from the freeway and surrounded by lots of small businesses, his parking lot stays full despite the fact that the neighborhood isn't quite considered a dining destination; Taqueria Los Altos is the kind of place you usually hear about before you get around to noticing it.
And what you're likely to hear is their reputation for seafood. While they sell plenty of tacos (two tacos, rice and beans, a full plate for $3.50) you can't help but notice the heavy, oversized glass stems full of coctel de mariscos that appear at almost every table. Choose from fresh octopus, oysters or shrimp--each is bathed in a cool marinade of Clamato juice and spicy salsa, garnished with diced cucumbers, avocado and fresh lime. The generous mound of shrimp--the real stuff, not the dinky, baby variety--a handful of Saltines and a frosty cerveza makes for a delightful lunch on a warm afternoon.
The seafood tostadas also make for lighter lunch-fare, offered with either shrimp or octopus done ceviche-style, in a spicy, citrusy dressing. Cooler weather and bigger appetites mean steaming bowls of caldo issuing from the kitchen. The siete mares (soup of seven seas) comes loaded with seven kinds of seafood, as does the mariscada, enough to feed a table full of fish fanciers.
Fresh fish and shrimp are offered in no fewer than eight hot platillos de mariscos found on the menu, either breaded and fried, sauted with either garlic or ranchero sauce (hot or mild), or in the style of Veracruz, with bell peppers and onions. The most popular way to order, however, is by tipping your head back to gaze at the lineup of 18 specials, all pictured above the cash register, most well under $10. Fajitas figure prominently here, as do enchiladas, tortas, burritos and carne asada, a must at any self-respecting taqueria.
A closer look at the menu turns up some interesting surprises under the heading of Sabado y Domingo. Repeatedly underscoring a commitment to freshness, Hernandez explains that he reserves a couple of authentic dishes for weekends only. "I have my cooks start a big batch of menudo on Friday afternoon and we sell it only over the weekend, that way you know it's always fresh. And the same thing goes for the birria." Birria de chivo is goat, roasted long and tender, with herbs and spices, only slightly gamier than lamb and a regional favorite.
Also on Sundays, another popular Jalisco habit happens--live mariachi, from 1 to 3pm. Poke your head inside the door to hear those lively, south-of-the-border sounds, order up a tall mug of chavela, the popular Guadalajaran concoction sort of like a Bloody Mary, only made with beer and a splash of wine and lemon, and you might convince yourself you've gone on holiday. cw