Monday, November 25, 2013

Los Altos: A Gabacho Discovers Real Mexican Tacos

Judy and I recently read Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano (Simon & Schuster, New York: 2012) and we have been manic for Mexican food as a result. About the same time, while teaching an English class at Crafton Hills College on a unit related to food, Judy asked her students what their favorite Mexican food restaurants were. One of them mentioned Los Altos Taqueria (referred to as Los Alto Meat Market on Yelp) located at 245 N. Waterman Ave, Ste. B, San Bernardino, CA 92408 (909-888-8487). We decided to give it a try. And liked it.  And I've tried it again several times since then. And liked it. And I plan to go back again. And again. 

My favorite local Mexican food restaurants have been La Costa Mariscos and Mitla Cafe. I have been thinking that they were pretty authentic. But Los Altos is causing me to reevaluate my Mexican food preferences and what authentic is and means. I'm coming to realize that I am truly a gabacho (as Arellano says, only a gringo calls a gringo a gringo, a Mexican calls a gringo a gabacho). When we walked into Los Altos, we were the only gabachos in there. When we looked at the menu we were overwhelmed with new terms. For example, under tacos, we found asada and pollo and chile verde and pescado, all items we felt pretty comfortable with. But we also found pastor and carnitas and birria and trompa and tripa and buche and cabeza and cueritos and chicharron and other terms that we struggled to get our heads around. 

This called for some serious food research and I have been back sampling the various tacos and learning about them. And I still have more research to do, but I'll share with you what I've found. 

The tacos that I thought were pretty authentic at La Costa and Mitla, a fried crisp shell tortilla filled with shredded beef or chicken, what I might now call gringo tacos, are a big step above the ground beef tacos at Taco Bell, what I might call gabacho tacos, but several notches below Los Altos tacos which are real Mexican tacos. Not New Mexican, Old Mexican. I know that because when I order and ask what the "cueritos" means, they struggle to tell me in English, "it is pork, but slimier." When they call out the order number in Spanish, when the order is complete, and I don't respond, they follow up by calling it out in English, at least I think that is the language they are trying to use, and I show my receipt to the man behind the counter and he confirms, by nod of the head, that my order is indeed coming up. 

These tacos are $1.89 (with a few exceptions), come with two soft corn tortillas, one inside the other, diced onions, cilantro, green or red sauce (depending on the filling) and a lot of the specified filling. These put the tacos at La Costa and Mitla to shame. You won't find Los Altos on Trip Advisor, like you will La Costa and Mitla. That is because they are inhabited by gringos and gabachos. Los Altos is for Mexicans and I'm about ready to change citizenship. 

Birria Taco - goat stew meat made using a broth base of roasted peppers. Originally from Jalisco and a purported aphrodisiac, likely because of the "general randiness of the goats from which it is made." Very excellent.
Chicharron Taco - pork rind with some of the fat still attached. I have been familiar with the crisp chicharron, but these are apparently marinated and boiled in salsa and are soft, moist and packed with flavor. One of my favorites. 
Chorizo Taco - believe it or not, a term that originated on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) for several types of pork sausage. Cured smoked pork sausage made with chili peppers. This sausage is quite hard and packed with a strong flavor, unlike the uncooked chorizo fresco that  is moist and very runny. 
Cueritos Taco - pork rind (skin) without any of the attached fat (which makes it chicharron). The cueritos is very soft and has a smooth mouth feel and looks like large transparent onions. For the uninitiated, it has a gross factor based on looks alone. It is good, but not as flavorful as the chicharron. 
Lengua Taco - beef tongue with the outer skin removed. This was the most surprising to me and I've had tongue before that was very plasticy. This was very smooth and mellow, with a very mild taste and the texture of corned beef hash. This taco costs about $.40 more than the other tacos. I did not like this as well just because I like the stronger flavors.
Buche Taco - pork stomach. I've had buche before and really loved it. This is one of my favorite tacos, believe it or not. It is mostly gelatinous, with a little bit of crunch, some parts soft, like the cueritos, and the redder parts a little more chewy and flavorful. Packs a flavor wallop and no off-putting smell or taste. 
Trompa Taco - pork snout. A mix of different textures, some very stiff, not very gelatinous, spicier than lengua and not as spicy as buche. Quite good and much better than this guy's experience
Tripas Taco - small intestines cleaned, broiled and grilled. Thick, more earthy, strong, not as flavorful. My hispanic paralegal refused to eat a bite initially, then took one taste and refused more. This is the same paralegal that brought me home made menudo. I can eat these just fine, but they are toward the bottom of the list when compared with the others. 
Cabeza Taco - roasted head of the pig. It generally includes the eyes, lips, cheeks and other meats on the head. Very reddish brown, soft and pleasing texture. A little bit gelatinous, very mild, not huge flavor. 
Pescado or Fish Taco - breaded and fried fish in a coleslaw. Quite a bit different than the other tacos, texturally and taste-wise. I quite like it.  
Chile Verde - pork chunks in a green sauce. The pork is a bit chunky and hard. Okay, but many others I like more. 
Pastor Taco - pork marinated in dried chiles, spices and pineapple and cooked on a spit ("in the style of the shepherd"). Similar to the Turkish doner kebab. Developed in Central Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. Very strong and tasty.
I don't have a picture of the Carnitas Taco which is made of pork that has been slowly braised or roasted, or deep fried, then the heat is turned up and the outside is crisped, then the pork is shredded. A very good taco.

I have also tried a few non-taco items on the menu. For example a few tostadas. The bean tostada below has a thick layer of beans, some thick Mexican cream and a healthy sprinkling of white Mexican cheese. Very tasty.

Bean Tostada
Chorizo Tostada. I ordered this tostada without the Mexican cream and the chorizo was just overwhelming. Too much, too spicy. Chorizo is great on a taco, but too strong for the tostada. I would not order this again. 
Chili Relleno. The chili relleno is okay, but why eat okay when you can eat great tacos. 
Plenty more to explore and I plan to do so. After all, I have much to learn before I can be naturalized. 


  1. You've gotta be impressed by the thriftiness and dedication of eating Every. Single. Part. of the animal. I don't know that I'd be willing to try some of these...

  2. I read the names of these to Dave and the ingredients. We both decided we'll pass on the snout taco, and the other innards. Our local Mexican dive has tacos al pastor with a spectular creamy cilantro sauce and marinated carrots and onions on the side. I'm in heaven.

    But we're going to print out your review (plus photos) and take it with us when we head over to your place. (I daresay it's probably not a good place to take our vegan daughter in law?)

    1. The creamy cilantro sauce and marinated carrots and onions sound fantastic. I would go there for lunch, not dinner (may be a little too exciting outside the restaurant at that time of day).