by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
120 S. Mills Road
The Mexican state of Jalisco, with its agave fields, volcanoes, impressive lakes and dramatic coastline, is home to many of the traditions and characteristics that one associates with Mexico: mariachi music, sombreros, ribbon dresses, pottery and tequila.
Near Guadalajara is the small city of Tlaquepaque. The name comes from Nahuatl (an Aztec language) to mean “place above clay land,” and indeed, its pottery and blown glass are world-famous. Ventura County’s own Tlaquepaque is in Santa Paula, and it is known for its savory meats and fresh seafood — ingredients around which Jalisco’s richly diverse cuisine is based. This family-owned restaurant doesn’t shy away from the less familiar cuts of meat, either, so if you’re looking to go beyond carne asada, Tlaquepaque is a great place to do it.
It’s a busy place on a weekend night, with customers seating themselves in the large open dining room and everyone else queueing up at the counter to place a to-go order. The staff keeps pace with it all, though, they’re old hands at managing a big crowd. We were seated right away, with an enormous basket of chips and some of the tastiest salsa I’ve had in a while. This basic house salsa isn’t as spicy as habanero, but it’s got some heat, and wonderful flavors of tomato, onion, cilantro and chili.
At first glance, the menu seems enormous; dozens of items are listed. But it’s less unwieldy than that. Many dishes are variations on a theme, with tacos, sopes, burritos, enchiladas and “Mexican specialties” available in your choice of one of Tlaquepaque’s many meats. Carne asada, chicken, al pastor and carnitas are the familiar offerings, of course, but look a little more closely and things get more interesting. Cabeza (beef head), lengua (beef tongue) and the great Jaliscan dish known as birria, or marinated and roasted goat meat, are all proudly presented.
I had never had the pleasure of those more obscure (to the American palate) cuts, so I jumped right in and ordered a soft taco in every meat — they’re street-size and less than $2 a pop, so it’s not (quite) as indulgent as it might sound. Even so, the enormous platter of meats and tortillas (handmade, of course) was still a substantial quantity; I tasted all of it, but brought plenty home.
In truth, I can’t say that I cottoned on to the beef tongue. It was tender, and diced, and not a bad substrate for salsa and cilantro, but the spongy texture and somewhat bland flavor didn’t quite capture me. The beef head was interesting, rich with an almost liver-like flavor. For me, the true revelation was the birria: The depth of flavor, mixing smoky with gamey, was unusual and delicious. I was pleased with the carne asada and al pastor (I appreciated the occasional chunk of pineapple) even if both were maybe a little on the greasy side. The chicken and carnitas, on the other hand, were rather dry and unimpressive.
The chicken dish that did impress me was the pollo adobado. A large chicken breast cutlet, pounded thin and tender, was thoroughly basted with a wonderful paprika-based adobo sauce. Too big to consume in one sitting but great for leftovers.
In fact, that was true of everything we ordered: Tlaquepaque doesn’t hold back on the portions. You could easily fill two tortillas with the amount of meat that comes on a single street taco, and that adobado cutlet covered nearly half the dish. That’s not to mention the generous servings of beans and rice that accompany most items.
Our appetites were more than satisfied by this foray into the traditional cuisine of Jalisco, which unfortunately meant that the numerous seafood dishes — soups and ceviche, octopus and oysters, shrimp in no less than 12 different preparations and lots of fish, too — went untasted. Chile verde and chile colorado will have to wait for a return visit as well. And how did I possibly come here without ordering mole? That’s the risk you run when there’s so much offered on the menu.
That’s the beauty of Tlaquepaque, too: so many ways to experience the traditional cuisine of Jalisco, in one place and right here in Santa Paula. Whether you dine in or take it home, you’ll be savoring the true “Soul of Mexico.”