Thoughts on tasty new taco developments as Monterey Bay approaches peak taco
John Cox stands next to a flaming tornado and doesn’t flinch. Instead, he smiles.
It’s past 10pm in Mexico’s capital. We’re in a neighborhood called Narvarte at a place called El Vilsito, which functions as an auto repair shop by day then transforms into a booming taquería where locals flock until 2 in the morning.
They come for homemade tacos—volcanes (meat and cheese), quesongos (mushroom and cheese) and gringa (cheese, al pastor and pineapple)—but the place is most famed for its tacos al pastor. It’s understood here that the marinated pork should always be shaved from one of these massive meat tornadoes after spinning on the roasting spit for hours.
Cox is here to study up for downtown Monterey’s Cult Taco, which officially opened May 1. That launch is part of a peak taco moment for Monterey Bay and wider Northern California, a window in time and taste that also includes Snap Taco taking off in Santa Cruz, Pescadero in Carmel and Cemitas in Davenport doing earthy tortillas from scratch, celebrated chefs like Thomas Keller crafting upscale Mexican and everyone from Yeast of Eden to C restaurant featuring tacos, too.
But Cult Taco takes a different approach than the seven Mexico City spots Cox and I chowed through in two nights. The Cult team draws ample inspiration from Mexican traditions, but also aims to overhaul the experience using technology and creativity.
The menu features items like white prawns with garlic mojo and cauliflower in handmade molé. The walls are covered with murals of crows, snakes and skulls painted by Oaxacan artist Ricardo Angeles. A bigger departure from classic taquerías, and from the team’s mothership, Cultura comida y bebida, is the point of sale: Customers order on brightly colored iPads, pay exclusively with cards and receive food dropped off by staff members who rotate through working both the kitchen and the front of the house.
But there are some similarities between Cult and places we visited, including Molino El Pujol by Mexico City’s celebrated chef Enrique Olvera. The key ingredient: tortillas.
Molino mills its own masa and makes its corn-centric menu— think masa tamal with poblano pepper and raisins or elote corn cobs dressed with chicatanas (ants), coffee and costeño chiles—using ancient Mexican techniques. “By making tortillas, we’re trying to communicate culture,” Olvera likes to say.
“A taco is as much about the tortilla as what’s in it, something that’s really popping with flavor and won’t fall apart no matter how juicy the ingredients might be.”
After tasting a multitude of masas, Cox and Cult partner Michelle Estigoy landed on a specific sort of high-grade, white corn masa from a tiny family-owned unmarked storefront in Seaside, which they’re reluctant to name. While their collaborating cooks from Oaxaca adhere to a strict water-and-masa-only approach, Cox and Estigoy infuse their tortillas with a “tea” brewed from guajillo chile, onion and salt.
“We are not trying to be the Mexico City experience,” Cox says. “We’re trying to take it and tweak it through a chef’s lens.” For Pescadero owner-operator Gabe Georis, the tortilla is similarly central, which is why he dedicated the small space adjacent to Barmel and Pescadero to all tortillas, all the time, at $5 per dozen out the door.
“A taco is as much about the tortilla as what’s in it, something that’s really popping with flavor and won’t fall apart no matter how juicy the ingredients might be,” he says.
I agree with him on that, and on what he says next:. “Anything you put in a tortilla is a taco. That’s the beautiful thing.” Georis recalls a recent trip to a restaurant in Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe, where the mightiest revelation was simply seared sweetbreads inside a mustard leaf and a fresh tortilla, nothing more.
“F—ing phenomenal,” he says.
Pescadero’s homemade corn tortillas figure throughout its menu, most memorably with the molé-drenched enchiladas, enmoladas, and range of beer-battered, Baja-style taco plates, whether that’s the shrimp, rockfish or avocado.
Tacos are jazz on a tortilla, ready for improvisation.
In Santa Cruz, Snap Taco co-owner and Manresa alum Kendra Baker, whose team is behind the popular spots The Picnic Basket and The Penny Ice Creamery, pledges allegiance to the tortilla, too. “It’s the same thing as a sandwich— what can it be if it’s on crappy bread?” she asks. “Tortillas can be really dry if you’re not careful, or chewy, or soggy, or greasy.”
Snap’s habit-forming tacos include the “Good Fortune,” pork with lime, fish sauce, mint, cilantro, toasted rice, shallot and cucumber; the roasted sweet potato; and the fried chicken with bacon and blue cheese. “With all of our businesses, we really enjoy finding something that’s accessible to people exploring flavors,” Baker says.
With these spots cropping up, the creativetaco category is well-represented. So is the slot for hearts stolen by Mexico City, thanks to the likes of Mi Tierra Taqueria in the back corner of Broadway Avenue’s Latino mercado in Seaside, and the taco-truck category, starring PT Catering. The sweet couple behind it, Tuyet and Phuong Truong, park at Laguna Grande in Seaside and at the Marina landfill for breakfast and lunch customers every weekday.
Yet another category lurks: the high-end taco. While paying upwards of $15 for a taco plate will never feel quite right after finding addictive tacos for a few pesos, good product merits a premium. A question arises with the top-shelf taco, explored in a recent San Francisco Chronicle piece by food critic Soleil Ho: Who owns the taco?
She decides Thomas Keller’s new taquería La Calenda, which opened in Yountville at the beginning of the year, “is culinary appropriation done right” because, in part, the Guamúchil wooden platters, mezcal copitas (sipping cups) and clay pitchers are made by artisans in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero and prioritized on Calenda’s website, and the worm salt and cactus ingredients are used with respect—and aplomb.
So how do we dissect appreciation and appropriation? I’m like Kendra Baker and her business partner Zachary Davis, who say that providence is important, but the emphasis should be on honoring the inspiration more than territorial boundaries.
“It is really about celebrating culinary traditions and artistry,” Davis says. “Art is of the artist, and not about appropriation. It’s a creative endeavor. That’s what’s happening here. When you’ve been in this industry for a while, [you] realize it’s not about finding people trying to take advantage of others. They do it out of love.”
Baker adds this: “We do it because we’re curious, and wondering how we can evolve food into something to share with others. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”
Georis has a thought here. “My experience with friends in Northern Baja is everything is fair game,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Our fish tacos came from tempura and the Japanese,’ so they’re not afraid of influence anywhere that can make a taco taste better.”
Tacos can be great precisely because they can contain multitudes. Authentic is good. Creative is good. Simple is good. Jazz is good and tacos are jazz on a tortilla, ready for improvisation, and elements that simultaneously stretch and redefine how the form can function.
It’s harder to admit that elite tacos are OK, too. But truth be told, I want greasy old-school tacos al pastor at a garage as much as I want pristine local fish tacos overlooking Monterey Bay. Executive chef Matt Bolton, the guy behind the sustainable dayboat-fresh rock cod tacos at C restaurant, provides a humble way to wrap it all up.
“Tacos are such an easy way to grab and eat something packed with flavor, with spice, with endless variations,” he says. “They [mean] never eating the same thing twice, unless you really want to.”
In other words, endless variation is a feature, not a flaw. But…can we go too far?
“No,” Bolton says. “There’s no such thing as too much taco.”
Mark C. Anderson is a freelance writer based in Seaside (and in his backpack). Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @MontereyMCA.