Under the glare of a spring heat wave, Fruitvale's Cesar Chavez Park looks parched and abandoned, even on Sunday. A lone mango seller slowly trolls the void with his cart, apparently unfazed by the futility of making a sale. Under a feathery tree that looks just enough like a jacaranda to seem genuinely Mexican, two boys scan a low wall tiled with folk portraits of the saints of the UFW. "Dolores Huerta!" one of them exclaims, a pipsqueak voice of discovery.
At nearby Taqueria Campos, where a couple in Sunday clothes polishes off bowls of goatmeat birria despite the heat, discovery comes with far more pungency, and a striking meticulousness. Ana Maria Campos' birria, posole, and most of all her menudo are a holy trinity that makes her poky and immaculate little eatery a worthy shrine to Jalisco mom cooking. This is one of Fruitvale's insider places, a restaurant far from the sweaty carnival playing out two enormously long blocks away on International Boulevard. Taqueria Campos butts up against its sleepy park it even looks like a park building, squat and stingy of windows fronting a battered residential block opening out onto Foothill. "Autentico sabor casero," the roof sign promises in lettering old-fashioned enough to suggest its authenticity, and just maybe its deliciousness. As far as that holy trinity of soups goes, none of it is a lie.
I should point out that some version of Taqueria Campos has operated here for more than a decade, although Ana Campos assumed ownership from a relative only last year. This is her first public cooking gig, although well-known restaurants dot the family tree various Campos siblings are proprietors of Guadalajara and the Zamorano outlets elsewhere in Fruitvale, as well as the numbered outposts of La Piñata's tequila-and-combo-plate empire. Campos herself owns a taco truck, Tacos Alonzo, at Foothill Boulevard and 27th Avenue. But you won't find her homestyle soup-stews anyplace but here, through Taqueria Campos' sidewalk order window and yawning mesh security door. And even though the menu calls them weekend specials, they're pretty much available all week. The first time I showed up here, I stooped awkwardly to speak my order through the lowish window.
"Inside or outside?" Campos asked.
"Uh, inside." I thought she meant one of the two tables in a squat passage just though the security door. She yelled something. At the other end of the passage a second security door swung open, and a girl flicked on a fluorescent light with an initial stuttering flash. She waited by the door as I shuffled into the small room: four tables under orangey walls covered in splotchy polka dots, as if a fist had wiped away uneven circles of the bright paint down to white primer. There was the blare of a radio and a view out through gauzy curtains to a brick wall.
The hidden dining room was only the first discovery. The second came in the form of a big bowl of menudo blanco ("white," since it's free of the chile puree that colors the more common version, menudo rojo). Ah, menudo: the tripe soup famous for soothing hangovers and infamous for hyping a certain feathered-hair Puerto Rican boy band of the 1980s. Maybe no other dish reveals the divide between America and Mexico, steeper than any border wall could ever rise. America's taste for violence ends at the table. We like our meat in the form of muscle, free of the slaughterhouse whiff that clings to organs. Mexico has less-conflicted animal appetites. A well-made menudo, like the one here, both wallows in and triumphs over the carnal. Call it the crowning achievement of a meat cuisine steeped in Catholic theology, the transcendence of the fleshy. Sprung from the potentially gross (okay, the actually gross), menudo this good is cross-border slurpable.
Delicacy of broth is key. Campos' broth was semiclear and had the offal fragrance of tripe, but with the essential grossness leached out. It contained small, hollow sections of marrowbone simmered clean and ghostly white. The tripe pieces weren't the thick, waffle-walled slabs of so-called honeycomb. These were smooth or only slightly ruffled gelatinous and chewy, as is the nature of tripe, but with a vaguely buttery richness.
David Samiljan, owner of Baron's Meat & Poultry in Alameda and Berkeley, suggests how tricky tripe can be by extension, it makes you appreciate Campos' skill. "It's like a good stew," he says. "If you do it right it's absolutely transcendent, and if you half-ass it, then it is what it is," implying that what it is ain't exactly good. To start with, you've got to select the correct kind. Diana Kennedy writes that smooth tripe, the kind Mexican cooks call callo, or toalla in the Yucatan ("towel" tripe, on account of its relative smoothness), is best. Samiljan calls it leaf tripe, the lining from one of a cow's four stomachs that's smaller than the large organ where the honeycomb stuff comes from, meaning there's less of it to go around. It's the tripe of no half-assing.
Condiments arrived in a scalloped crème brûlée dish: the ubiquitous lime and chopped white onion, but also toasted whole pequin chiles, Mexican oregano, diced jalapeños, and a fluffy pile of shredded mint. The interplay of toasty, spicy, weedy, and fresh worked bite-by-bite changes on the soup by the time I'd reached the bottom, it had turned searing and tannic. Think of Campos' menudo as an inverse pyramid of flavors, starting with the broad, animal taste of offal and ending up in some concentrated tea of prickly intensity.
Campos' posole yields more than the usual comforts of the classic Jalisco meal-in-a-bowl, a brothy, long-cooked stew of pork and hominy. Too many restaurant posoles make heavy garnishing essential big doses of lime juice, oregano, and salsa picante are the eater's equivalent of mouth-to-mouth. Hers glows from the inside thanks to a rich, well-rounded broth that's strikingly skimp-free, an obvious result of plenty of meat subjected to plenty of simmering. It comes with a couple of tacos dorados, deep-fried empanada-like pockets filled with ground pork and a hash of potato and carrot. Good broth makes the birria admirable, too it shines even through the smoldering filter of dried chiles and the dark, oily shadow of goat.
It's a reminder that what's good about this modest little place is the way its owner tends to the basics, at least for her three specialties. That includes the handmade tortillas, made with masa sourced from the La Finca tortilla factory one block away. Campos' tortillas are moderately thick and lush, with a husky maize flavor and the bright color of American cornbread. She forms them in an oak tortilleria her son Ruben recently carried back from Mexico for her. Traditional wooden presses are better than metal ones, Ruben later told me by phone. "It won't give them that funky taste," he said. For that matter, you could say his mom's traditional methods are a study in avoidance of funky.
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