A&E

Small venue, huge flavors

Revelation-inducing burritos and artful tacos abound at Taqueria La Cazuela

On the first day of preparation before each school year begins, Principal Tami Espinosa of Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto brings 60 staff and faculty members to nearby Taqueria La Cazuela for lunch.

"The first year, I was overwhelmed," said La Cazuela owner Gabriel Sanchez. "We could only seat 30."

But Espinosa brought tables and chairs and set them up outside. It's become a tradition.

"I was hooked on their food the first time I ate there," Espinosa said. "We use them for all our parent events. Last year we had a shower for a teacher and needed a table for 10. When we arrived, the table was decorated. They are such nice people, very accommodating."

It's hard to miss Taqueria La Cazuela. Not only is the location prominent -- at the corner of Bay Road and Clarke Avenue -- but the structure is also painted jalapeño green. It simply radiates "good Mexican food made here."

It wasn't always that way. Four years ago this month, Sanchez and his wife, Mayrra Rivera, took over the space, which had housed a similar restaurant.

"The clientele was not so good," Sanchez said. "Not only did we have to clean up the restaurant, we had to chase away some of the characters who hung around. It was slow going, so one day, I just took platters of tacos out on the street and gave them away."

It worked. Business has been solid ever since -- and the clientele has improved.

But nothing comes easy. Sanchez worked two jobs for years in order to set aside enough to buy the space at 2390 Clark Ave. He spent the daylight hours working in building maintenance, then went straight to the graveyard shift as a hotel receptionist.

Once he opened the restaurant, Sanchez went from seeing little of his family to being surrounded by them. His mother makes the mole sauce twice weekly; his wife Mayrra makes the other sauces and specialties and handles the front of the house. One son and three daughters help out, school schedules permitting, but Sanchez does most of the cooking. His brother, who owns Taqueria La Veracruzana in Santa Clara, has also been a big help, Sanchez said.

Recipes come from family, friends and adaptations of traditional regional dishes.

"I am from Veracruz (the Caribbean side of Mexico) and my wife is from Michoacán (the Pacific side)," Sanchez said. "She makes enchiladas Michoacanas ($10.50), which customers specifically come in for."

The small but colorful interior is designed for eating, not lingering -- although no one is rushed. In summer, tables and chairs are added outdoors for al fresco noshing. There's no alcohol, but there are several flavors of aguas frescas: refreshing beverages made with fruits and even flowers.

The food is impressive: fresh, without too many distractions. The chili peppers in the sauces don't overwhelm, but enhance the flavors. Everything on the menu is made to order.

The carnitas super burrito ($6) was a revelation. Not only were the ingredients moist and juicy, but the tortilla was grilled, rather than steamed, which gave it a flaky crispness. The ingredients weren't all squished together either because it was just made, hot from the kitchen.

Special one day, the chicken meatball soup ($7.99) was loaded with vegetables and the broth was golden and thick, almost creamy. The chicken meatball was large enough that I quartered it.

The delightful chicken sope ($2) was made with the characteristic thick tortilla topped with refried beans, green chilies, tomato, chicken and a squiggle of sour cream, and sprinkled with fresh queso fresco.

Enchiladas Michoacanas ($10.50) is not an easy dish to make. It's a many-step process involving red chilies, onions, cabbage, potatoes, garlic, sauces, herbs and spices -- and technique. The resulting dish is stacked with rich flavors, topped with avocado and queso fresco and served with fried chicken or steak on the side.

Tacos al pastor ($1.35) came with tender barbequed pork, onions and cilantro dabbed with a slightly piquant red chili sauce. Other taco choices were carne asada (steak), carnitas (braised pork), chicken, and lengua (beef tongue). Both the fish (cod) and shrimp tacos ($2.50) were as artful as they were delectable.

La Cazuela also serves breakfast with eggs four ways ($8 each) and a breakfast burrito ($5.50). Throughout the day there are burritos, tacos, tortas, nachos (with meat), sopes, tostadas, combination plates and specialties such as chile rellenos, shrimp cocktail, flautas and a dozen others.

There are also daily specials such as tamales and soups. Menudo, the traditional Mexican soup made of tripe, red chilies, onions and herbs, is prepared on Fridays and Saturdays. One cool morning, there was champurrado ($2.75), a thick maize-based chocolate drink with hints of cinnamon and vanilla. Just delicious.

That's what you get with dedicated on-site owners and a loving touch, not only in the food but in the ambiance, be it ever so humble.

Taqueria La Cazuela

2390 Clarke Ave., East Palo Alto

650-289-0727

Hours:

Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-9 p.m.

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