Taqueria Santa Cruz...
...is my current favorite taqueria in town!! I can't believe it's taken me so long to try it given that the Soquel Ave. location is within walking distance from our house. I was under Tacos Moreno's spell for a while, but I've been disappointed w/ them in the past 6 months so needed to venture out.
We've eaten there about 3 times now--once there and twice for takeout. I like the atmos. of the place w/ its red vinyl booths and big windows that let in lots of light. Good for daytime food photography, although the one time we ate in I didn't have my camera handy! Large proportion of Mexican clientele w/ soccer on TV, of course.
We've tried several kinds of tacos (around $1.75ea): al pastor, chorizo, tripe, buche (intestine, I believe), and asada. The al pastor is the best in town IMO. In plain sight behind the counter, they roast it on the spit w/ an onion on top (no pineapple). Loaded w/ flavor that is arm-dripping juicy! Moreno's version is much more dry and bland IMO. The diced asada is the most flavorful and moist I've had in the area. The buche was crisp on the edges and creamy in the center (reminded me of sweetbread I've had in French restaurants), but I didn't really care for it in a taco. The tripe was too intensely earthy tasting and not tender enough for me, but husband liked it. Chorizo was very crispy and had a nice balance of vinegar and spice.
Al pastor taco from takeout here:
For our sit-down meal one weekend, we tried their daily special, mojarra frita (around $8.50). This was a medium-sized whole tilapia that was deep-fried and finished on the grill. Accompaniments were corn tortillas (I don't think they're handmade, but they're good), refried beans, red rice, avocado, lettuce, sliced tomato, and lime. We were given a chorizo taco and told the waitress that we didn't order it, but she insinuated that it went w/ the fried fish, although we're still not sure.
While the fish looked and tasted fresh, it was fried too hard so that the meat was dry and overpowered by the oil taste. The accompaniments were all flavorful and fresh; the beans were particularly creamy and well-seasoned. Avocado was buttery w/ not one brown spot in sight. I wouldn't order the fish again, but now I know their sides aren't a waste like at many other places. Also tried their corn quesadilla, which was generously filled w/ melty Mexican white cheese. Moreno's may have a slight edge...
I must also highlight their aguas frescas. They are ladled out of big jars at the counter, and the melon one was absolutely refreshing w/ a slight pulpy consistency. The jamaica is very dark and concentrated w/ blackcurrant notes. Their DIY salsa bar doesn't have many selections, but I really like their green salsa which I'm guessing has tomatillo, lime, avocado, cilantro, and onion. The pico de gallo looks anemic, but it surprisingly has good flavor. The pickled radishes, carrots, and jalapenos are a zesty refresher. The innocent-looking foamy habanero salsa (unlabeled) is insanely hot, so consider yourself warned!! I can't tolerate it, but you chileheads might like it.
What can I say, I really dig this place and look forward to further exploration. I want to try some of their mariscos, but I have a feeling they might excel more at meat. Birria (goat) is another meat I need to try. The bowls of homey-looking soup also look good. I think the Soquel Ave. location may be better than the Mission location, but I'm not sure. Comments? Soquel location is open til 11pm or midnight.
Here's an old menu on menustation that gives a sample of offerings:
1002 Soquel Ave.
Santa Cruz CA 95062
2215 Mission St.
Santa Cruz CA 95060
Made it in for an early lunch today. Fine Pastor indeed. I particularly liked that the marinade on it was a bit milder than most versions letting the meat flavor come through. Nice balance of outer charred bits and surprisingly tender. Worth a trip.
There was no foamy habanero salsa when I went which was a bummer but I did like the pickled potatoes.
I thought the chips were fine but nothing special.
So a great taco but not good enough to top the chicharon tacos at La Cabana. Shame there salsa never recovered the heat it used to have or those would be a shockingly great.
My recent obsession led us back to TSC last night. I gasped when I saw that the al pastor rotisserie was empty; however, we were still able to order it so they had some somewhere...
We had to try the soup that many tables had last time. Not on the regular menu, it's on a piece of paper stuck below and called "carne en su jugo". $5.00 for a small and $6.50 for a large. We ordered a large to share and two tacos: al pastor and birria (goat). Soup comes w/ choice of corn or flour tortillas and we chose corn. Food came quickly.
Photo of soup:
Photo of tacos (birria on left, pastor on right):
The soup was incredible and like nothing I've ever had at a Mexican restaurant. I googled it when I got home, and this dish is a specialty of Guadalajara. It is a meat lover's dream and truly a soup that eats like a meal. As you can see, there's a good sheen of fat at the surface, but I didn't find it unpleasantly greasy.
As your spoon dips into the broth, it pulls up chunks of diced beef, bacon, pinto beans, and onions that have been transformed into a sum greater than its parts. Broth is rich and smokey from the bacon, but brightened by lots of cilantro and a squirt of lime juice. An assortment of fresh and charred dried peppers encircles the rim of the plate for diners who wish to add more heat. The corn tortillas are essential for dipping into the broth and scooping up some meat now and then. No doubt that we will order this again.
Slightly blurry photo of soup contents:
The tacos were fine, but paled in comparison. The birria was on the dry side and surprisingly didn't have much flavor. It came w/ a yellow-orange sauce on top but I still don't know what it was. Only had a couple bites and let husband finish the rest. The pastor was tasty; however, the meat was piled on too high and it tasted a little more flat than last time. I wonder if it's better earlier in the day. I didn't think too much meat was ever possible at a taqueria, but this time I could have cut the meat in half for my ideal meat to tortilla ratio. They are generous here.
We tried the horchata this time, and it was very good, better than many that I've had. It had a clean, milky freshness and was spiced just right. Next time I'm tempted to try their diablo shrimp.
I had a burrito here a few years ago, but don't remember much about it one way or the other. (Plus, I'm rarely in this area at meal times.) But based on Carb Lover's incredibly seductive al pastor pic, I decided that I had to try it again, so, with a daughter in tow, showed up for lunch Sunday. Ordered three tacos: al pastor (of course), carnitas and asada:
The al pastor is everything Carb Lover says and more. Absolutely the best. Yum! The carnitas was OK (odd to see it chopped up in little cubes), and the asada was so-so. Will definitely be back for more pastor and to try birria and chorizo.
And about that salsa, I just had to take a pic:
That sort of candy/watermelonish color of the habanero one is incredibly misleading. From the color, you'd think it might be sweetish. But noooooo! Fire-breathing. Yikes! While a little of it goes a long way, a (very) careful application does provide a nice kick.
Thanks to Carb Lover for the great report. I'd probably never have been back without it (and that photo).
Great photos! You captured the salsas and chips well. Watermelon-colored is a perfect description for that devilish salsa, and it initially misled me into thinking that it was mild/sweet. I learned my lesson after the first time and have too much PTSD to touch it again. I like their thick crunchy chips.
Glad you liked the al pastor. I usually don't order asada since I tend to find it bland and boring, but I did like TSC's version. Is there a local place that you think does asada well? Can't wait to try that birria...
re: Nathan P
Well, it looks like you have a few hours before they close tonight. :-)
Try it soon and let me know what you think. Some of their saucing across taco fillings can be redundant, but that al pastor was so tasty. We'll probably go back sometime this week since I'm getting another craving...
What a great review - and that photo is making me drool! I was addicted to Vallarta's asada for a while but the last few times were disappointing. I think I'll have to try Taqueria Santa Cruz for lunch next week (my work is not too far from the Soquel location).
Has anyone heard anything about the new Leo's Tacos (I think that's the name)? It's on Brommer and 17th (formerly Turkey Shack). They just opened up and every time I've driven by it's been packed.