Cinco TacoBar in San Leandro Redefines the Strip Mall Taqueria 

It's like a Chipotle, but the food is actually good.

Two carne molida tacos — the one on the left is topped with mango pico de gallo.Bert Johnson

Bert Johnson

Two carne molida tacos — the one on the left is topped with mango pico de gallo.Bert Johnson

Inspiration struck Silvano Hernandez while waiting in line to buy 2 a.m. post-clubbing tacos at the end of a day that also started with tacos for breakfast.

Hernandez had been working at the Alameda location of La Piñata (now La Penca Azul) since he was fifteen years old, learning every position from line cook to marketing director. And, as he put it, he "really, really, really, loved tacos." If he were to open a place of his own, what would it be if not a taqueria?

The seed of an idea that eventually turned into Cinco TacoBar, a two-month-old taqueria located in a San Leandro shopping plaza adjacent to Bayfair Center, was simple. Hernandez, who moved to East Oakland from Michoacan, Mexico, when he was a kid, had seen the tremendous success of Chipotle's "fast-casual" spin on a traditional taqueria, with its mix-and-match menu of tacos, burritos, and burrito bowls.

"In a way they're hijacking our culture, our flavors, and our food," he said. "I think we can do it better."

Imagine, then, a Chipotle where the food is actually good. That, in a nutshell, is what Hernandez set out to create with the help of co-founders Alfonso and Octavio Guzman — of the Guzman family that founded the La Piñata chain (and, later, La Penca Azul) in the Eighties. Octavio, in particular, developed most of the recipes for Cinco TacoBar. A fourth partner in the business, William Bonhorst, comes out of the tech startup world.

Cinco is hardly the first restaurant to adopt a version of Chipotle's quasi-upscale, fast-casual service model. And, as Hernandez points out, Chipotle itself didn't invent anything particularly new. Mexican grocery stores have long used a similar assembly-line setup, with meats cooked in batches ahead of time and held on a steam table.

That's the basic approach at Cinco, too. You choose from the selection of meats (carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, chicken, and seasoned ground beef, plus a grilled vegetable option), and then decide if you'd like to eat your meat in taco, burrito, bowl, quesadilla, or torta form. Similar to a Chipotle, the restaurant is a bit brighter and more modern-looking than your typical old-school taqueria, and the prices are a smidge higher — though not outlandishly so, at $2.35 a taco.

But this is the first Chipotle clone I've ever been to where the corn tortillas are made to order. That's thanks to the restaurant's custom-built tortilla machine, which was shipped over from Guadalajara and resembles a hand-crank pasta maker. The tortillas come out thick and piping-hot, and are as good as the ones you get at far ritzier — i.e., not "fast-casual" — sit-down Mexican restaurants that are known for their skill with masa. This alone makes Cinco TacoBar a worthy destination.

That tortilla machine was the first thing I saw when I walked up to the counter, and it set the tone for an experience that far exceeded the modest expectations one might have for a strip-mall taqueria. If you're the sort of taco or burrito eater who has tried to give Chipotle a shot but can never get over the relative blandness of the flavors, this is the place for you. The best of the meats was the al pastor — juicy, well-charred marinated pork whose intense savoriness was balanced by the bright acidity of fresh pineapple. The grilled chicken had a smokiness that went well with the taco's raw onion garnish. And the carne molida was an unexpected wild card — a particularly wet and juicy mix of seasoned ground beef, like a Cuban-style picadillo or the filling for a sloppy joe.

The only mild disappointment was the carnitas, which were very tender but lacked the crisp edges and bold flavors I look for in the dish.

Hernandez said he doesn't like to talk in terms of "authenticity," given how loaded a term that tends to be, especially when you're talking about something like a taqueria that's so closely tied to people's cultural and culinary identities. That said, he admitted that the way that he often judges a Mexican restaurant's authenticity is by the spiciest thing on the menu.

If those are the criteria, Cinco blows every Chipotle analogue — and many traditional taquerias — out of the water. The restaurant's bright-orange, habanero-based "Cinco sauce" added a delightful, smoky heat to everything. They keep an even fierier version in back to appease the hardcore chiliheads. And I found out too late about the spiciest condiment of all — the curtido, which Hernandez described as being a mixture of chopped habaneros (including all the seeds), red onions, and vinegar. Apparently, it made at least one customer cry.

I've always been more of a taco guy than a burrito guy, but the well-balanced, skillfully constructed burritos at Cinco should henceforth be included in any roundup of notable East Bay exemplars of the genre — especially if you get it with the al pastor and the extra-spicy Cinco sauce. I appreciated how I could customize the amount of rice in the burrito, or even omit it entirely — an option that's technically available at some Bay Area taquerias, but here they went out of their way to ask.

That's not to say that there aren't downsides to the assembly-line model — namely, the fact that the meats aren't grilled to order, and so even though they're cooked in batches over the course of the day, it's likely that your taco or burrito filling won't be hot. The quesadilla was griddled on what looked like a large panini press but somehow didn't crisp up at all. It was essentially a burrito that had been folded in half rather than wrapped. The torta looked amazing, served on Dutch Crunch bread (a choice that was inspired by Ike's), which got slathered in melted butter and griddled on that same press. But perhaps because my to-go order was wrapped in foil, the bread lost its characteristic crunch even just a few minutes later.

There was so much else to like, though, that these felt like minor quibbles. The fish taco was one of the best I've had in the Bay Area — beer-battered swai (or some equivalent white-fleshed fish) that's impeccably fried to order and topped with mango salsa and a chipotle cabbage slaw. The Papa Loca was a cross between San Diego-style carne asada fries and the Mexican baked potatoes that are the dish's namesake. The use of waffle fries instead of regular skinny fries, the house-made cheese sauce, and the option to add however many meats you like at no added cost made this an especially decadent version. And, for dessert, the churros de cajeta were as satisfying as you would expect caramel-filled fried dough to be.

This is a restaurant that was clearly created with the possibility of future expansion in mind — hopefully "hundreds" of locations in the next ten or fifteen years, according to Bonhorst. And some of the restaurant's branding makes me cringe: Promotional materials tout it as a "millennial taco bar," for instance — though, during my visits, millennials seemed no more well represented than, say, middle-aged construction workers.

Who knows how the restaurant might change if it ever scales up the way its founders envision? For now, let us just marvel at the simple fact that you can find tacos this good sandwiched between a pool supply store and a Payless ShoeSource — in a shopping plaza where the main competition is Wingstop and Panda Express. That, my friends, is something worth celebrating.


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