Steppin’ Out – Santa Maria Taqueria, Placerville

A few years ago I wrote about Carniceria Y Taqueria Soto which was located at 175-A Placerville Drive, right across the street from Raley’s, tucked in behind Placer Title. What was so great about the place is that it was not just a taqueria, but also a Mexican market (mercado) and meat market (carniceria).

About a year ago, a gentleman named Ruben Cervantes took over the place and renamed it Santa Maria Taqueria. He is an experienced caterer, so he fit right in. He restocked the market and meat market and added several new items to the taqueria menu.

“The store shelves were very nearly empty when I bought the place,” Ruben told Russ Salazar and me when we stopped by a couple of weeks ago. “I filled up the medicine area and restocked the food shelves.”

I was fascinated by the medicines. There were bottles, jars and tubes of things I had never seen before, or hadn’t seen in a long time. A box with a picture of radishes on it caught my eye. “It is something for your stomach,” Ruben told me.

While Russ was looking through the candies, I asked Ruben about a jar of unfamiliar fruit with a label reading, “Fruit Punch.”

“It is used to make a hot punch,” Ruben told me. Later I found out it is served at Christmas in Mexico and is made of cinnamon, sugar cane and available fruits.

Passing by the fresh fruit and vegetables and fresh masa for making tamales (a Christmas Eve tradition), I looked at the meat counter. I recognized the thin sliced beef for carne asada and was reminded that most supermarkets don’t use the proper cut of meat, nor cut it correctly. “Yes, you need the right cut, cut right,” Ruben told us.

Next to them were beef and pork ribs, cut crosswise and then chicken legs, with thighs attached, marinating in oranges and onions. I hadn’t noticed, but Ruben showed me they had been cut in half, along the bone, sort of butterflying them. “They grill better that way,” Russ said.
Then came the fresh cheeses, sausages, beef and pork chorizo and something long and green. “That is chorizo with jalapeños that we make,” said Ruben. Russ couldn’t pass up buying some, along with a nut bar.

We found a table in the taqueria area and looked over the menu. We couldn’t decide, so after offering us something to drink (we took horchata), Ruben asked us if we would like some samples. That was perfect.

While we were waiting, Russ told me about the nut bar he had found in the candy section and bought. “It is Barra Mixta, made with nuts in a molasses – cinnamon ‘glue.’ I haven’t seen these in 50 years. When I shined shoes in Los Angeles I would buy one after I earned a little money.”

Our first sample from Ruben was a pupusa, a thick, handmade corn tortilla usually found in Salvadorian restaurants (Ruben said it was Salvadorian by way of Mexico). It came with salsa and some marinated cabbage slaw and was delicious. A short time later we received a small bowl of menudo, which is served fresh every Saturday and Sunday.

There is a bowl of mixed spices on the table that you sprinkle on the menudo, along with lime juice. Russ loved it, but it is still not my favorite Mexican dish.

We watched Ruben, the “Master of the Spatula” (Russ came up with that while watching him work), preparing our samples. Then they arrived at our table: carnitas, al pastor, pig snout (trompa), tongue (lingua), green chorizo, beans, rice, two kinds of salsa and some corn tortillas. Russ’ first comment was, “Those beans are as close as you can get to homemade: not over mashed, just the way I like them.”

As we were tasting, Ruben brought us a small bowl with some dark meat in it. “Blood sausage,” he said.

I had seen it at the meat counter and recalled reading that the French Foreign Legion ate that and, like all kids, I once wanted to join that group, but…no. It wasn’t bad, just not my kind of food, even in a tortilla with a lot of salsa. There were too many other things on my plate to try.

The pig snout was very good, but a bit chewy, the green chorizo, al pastor and especially the carnitas were excellent, and the tongue, which I have eaten before, was better this time. It was in small pieces, which I liked.

“Ready for dessert?,” said Ruben as he brought us each a sweet tamale, which is simply sweetened masa and was very good. Okay, we were done. Then he brought the tray of pan dulce (sweet bread) to try.

“Take your pick,” he said. I took what appeared to be bread pudding, Russ went for a flaky crusted, strawberry tart. I took most of mine home, Russ devoured his. Both were very, very good.

There are about 2000 different sweet breads made in Mexico. I think I have tried five. Ruben has a couple of dozen that he gets from two different bakeries.

Just as a warning, the taqueria has only three tables, but most people take the food to go.

The taqueria menu includes tacos, burritos (big, served wet or dry), tortas, quesadillas, enchiladas, fresh tamales, combination plates and more. And, on Saturday and Sunday, menudo.

They are open daily from 9 until 7, except on Sunday when they close at 6. For more information, give them a call at (530) 295-8121.

If you want something for an authentic Mexican dinner or some other event, this is the place to shop. They have things for sale that I have literally never seen before, including piñatas the size of a small child. Best of all, everyone is very friendly and helpful.
If the names of Mexican food confuses you, go to http://doginspace.com/taqueriaspanish/.

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