The wealth of little Mexican restaurants and markets along 16th Street has long been a pet subject of mine, but CenPho has much more to offer than just the options along that main drag. To get to some of the really good stuff, you have to get beyond the beaten path.
While the gargantuan and relatively new Pro's Ranch Market on 16th Street serves as a south-of-the-border culinary beacon for this part of the city, one of my old standbys, located a few blocks west on a nothing-special stretch of Van Buren, has been consistently serving the neighborhood for much longer.
1205 East Van Buren Street
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Super Burrito: $7.59
Potato taco $2.19
They threw in everything but the kitchen sink with La Tolteca, which is a bakery, restaurant, and market all in one. Whether you work or study nearby, have to stick to a budget, or simply like to explore ethnic cuisines, it's a don't-miss stop within a stone's throw of downtown.
From the outside, it's hard to tell just what kind of treats are inside this long, boxy building. The sign says "carnicería" and "panadería," but you really need to set foot inside to experience the energy firsthand.
Entering La Tolteca from the parking lot, you'll encounter the bakery first — and I can't think of a more welcoming greeting than shiny cases bearing tray after tray of pan dulce (sweet breads), colorful tres leches cakes ready for a birthday party, and parfait cups filled with strawberries and cream.
The smell alone is enticing, and I get a little giddy about the overwhelming selection. Should I go with pastel-colored, shell-shaped conchas, puffy round pastries called ojos ("eyes") and orejas ("ears"), or perhaps tender fruit-filled empanadas? Yes to all of the above. A large cup of horchata is probably a good idea, too.
Past the panadería is the counter where you can order breakfast, lunch, and dinner from an extensive menu posted above the cash registers. Nearby, there's a bar stocked with four kinds of salsa (beware the truly hot habanero; even the "medium" has a serious kick), lime wedges, and a potent mix of pickled jalapeño, carrot, zucchini, onion, and green beans.
Mexican kitchen supplies are lined up along the front windows, and there's a small but surprisingly well-stocked grocery area and meat counter past the cash registers. Here, you can pick up a molcajete (mortar and pestle), a huge piece of crispy fried pork skin, pantry items, masa for making your own tamales, and fresh carne asada.
The dining room here always makes me smile. Paper cutouts flutter from the ceiling, and the wall murals of quirky people in a cartoon town make a fun setting for a feast. The sound system blares upbeat Mexican tunes, occasionally interrupted by someone announcing which order number is ready.
Thanks to giant billboards across the city, La Tolteca's Super Burrito is almost iconic, done up in gut-busting fashion with meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and red or green sauce. I'm a fan of the beef filling, which was as moist and flavorful as pot roast.
But there are more than a dozen other kinds of burritos here, making it pretty tough to settle on one. (I encountered the same "problem" when ordering tacos and tortas.) A petite carne asada burrito was a more manageable size for my appetite, rolled up with onion and cilantro, and served with warm, mild tomato salsa on the side.
When it came to mixing and matching, it was obviously easier to try a variety of fillings with the tacos. Each one was a little different — one with shredded chicken and cheddar came in a crispy fried tortilla shell, while the fish taco, laden with cabbage, tangy tartar, and cheese crumbles, was wrapped in a thin flour tortilla.
Tripa, crunchy tubes of deep-fried tripe, was served simply, with raw onion and cilantro, while the potato taco was somewhat decadent. Think mashed potatoes in a flour tortilla with cabbage, cotija, a squeeze of crema, and flecks of carrot. It lacked enough salt, but a dash of salsa took care of that.
La Tolteca's chilaquiles — layers of corn tortilla, scrambled egg, and chicken doused in deceptively hot green or red chile sauce — is one of the best versions of this classic dish that you'll find in the Valley. Avocado, cotija, and crema provide creamy, cool relief to the spice factor.
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Carnitas are often my fall-back dish at Mexican restaurants — what's not to love about pork? — but here, my carnitas-stuffed torta just didn't do it for me. Next time, I'll go for a torta with pastor, juicy chunks of lightly spiced pork that really hit the spot when I had it heaped on a sope with refried beans, cabbage, cilantro, and queso. The warm tomato salsa served with it was a bonus. (I really loved this dish, and frankly can't wait to go back for more.)
What are sopes? They're thick patties of masa (corn paste) that are griddled until slightly crisp but still tender on the inside. Gorditas are nearly the same thing, although the patties are sliced in half to form a sort of sandwich. I recommend either one.
And how could I forget tamales? Chicken mole and red beef versions were fragrant and moist, with a savory-sweet dynamic that had me licking the plate. The good thing is, they're also available uncooked and frozen, by the dozen.
Fill up on tasty, cheap eats at La Tolteca, and you'll be happy that there's so much to take home with you.