In today’s edition of lunch under $3, it’s time to head to the Middlefield taqueria corridor at the border of Menlo Park and Redwood City. There you’re only blocks away from Atherton, one of the most exclusive Bay Area communities. And yet at MexCal Taqueria
, diners can enjoy a truly top tier taco meal for less than a Sightglass espresso in surroundings that don't feel like a dive bar.
Free of the excessive ingredients that make burritos seem tired and heavy, a taco is an exhibit in simplicity: tortilla and fillings. MexCal soars in both regards but you must order carefully because the desirable combination is an off-the-menu mix of on the menu items.
The regular, small tacos don’t come with the tortillas worth going out of your way for. It’s the hand-made, oversized corn tortillas that transform these tacos into the best amidst the stiff local competition. While ordering, order a “super taco” which does come with these tortillas, except be certain to request no lettuce, tomato, and sour cream — you don't want to allow the excellent meat and tortilla to become the supporting cast.
Amidst excellent, grease-free meat choices from chorizo to carnitas (and a well above average fried catfish option), go for the al pastor as the taco’s filling.
For a splurge of $2.73, a very generous amount of al pastor and sautéed onions fills the tortilla, which is laid flat could cover the entire plastic plate. There is close to a pork chop’s worth of meat enclosed. It’s gently topped with fresh cilantro and either a mild salsa verde or a bold, very earthy salsa roja that hits just the right spice note. Radish slivers on the side help freshen the palate after several tastes of spice and meat, and a squeeze of lime juice adds important acidity to the al pastor's marinade.
Not one of the dozens of al pastor morsels wasn’t tender or had any gristle, something I’ve previously found to be impossible. No pineapple was added to the filling (often al pastor is roasted on a spit with a pineapple on top for the juices to drip down into the marinade), the onions provided a beautiful sweetness and crunch. Somebody knows what they're doing in the kitchen — literally each onion and pork slice was almost exactly the same size.
What really set the al pastor apart was the amount of achiote seed marinade on the pork. Every morsel came coated in the sauce, making each bite spring to life with a little salsa, onion, cilantro, and tortilla. And as thrilling as the pork is, I’d be happy just eating these tortillas with some salsa for lunch. They’re fluffy and nutty, more pancake than tortilla.
I’d say that one of these tacos equals three mini tacos. Adding a horchata will send the bill over $4, but you’ll be set for lunch. If you’re really hungry, add a mini carnitas taco for yourself or share with a group the ceviche tostada that I’m told is really the kitchen’s specialty. Note that the hand-made tortillas also accompany any of the large plates, like the spicy pork ribs costillas
and chile rellenos.
The taqueria is both charming and clean, blending a festive atmosphere with mariachi music on the juke box and Mexican soccer on the tv. You get the familial vibe of a hole in the wall spot with the cleanliness of a chain restaurant — win, win.
MexCal’s hand-made tortillas and al pastor could be served in upscale Mexican restaurants for over $10. This has to be one of the Bay Area's best bargains. Forget about those five pound Mission-style burritos. Back to basics here in Menlo Park. MexCal proves the virtues of the meat and tortilla taco.
3215 Middlefield, Redwood City; (650) 366-3922.