Taco No Prisoners 

For fans of Mexican fare, Concord's Monument Boulevard may soon give Oakland's Fruitvale a run for its dinero.

Some statistics make my stomach growl. Like these: According to Raoul Rojas of the Monument Community Partnership, a nonprofit that engages in community organizing in Concord, the city's Latino population grew 300 percent from 1990 to 2000 -- and hasn't stopped yet. Rojas estimates that 50 percent of the population in Concord's Monument Corridor is now Latino. Most come from Mexico, some from Central America. "They're a really new immigrant population," he says.

And when that really new immigrant population reaches critical mass, the numbers add up to really good food. Monument Boulevard, from Mohr Lane to the St. Stephen Cemetery, is quickly becoming the International Boulevard of Contra Costa County: the prime shopping and dining strip for thousands of Latino families. But at first glance an Oaklander might not know it. During the day, small clusters of day laborers still congregate here and there at corners, but there are no taco trucks, no fruit sellers, no cumbia or norteña blasting from overstressed car speakers.

On my first pass up and down the twenty-block strip, in fact, I spotted only a few signs of a Mexican presence on Monument Boulevard: a big El Faro restaurant, the Bay Area burrito chain founded in the early 1960s; a few supermercados; and a cowboy boot shop. But Concord doesn't do high-density the way Oakland does. Monument Boulevard is basically a long chain of strip malls, their storefronts obscured from the street.

The more I looked, though, the more I found. The more I found, the more I wanted to look. And as the corridor revealed more and more tiny restaurants and taco counters, I realized that it would take more than a couple of weeks and a few bellies to map the terrain. So I focused on surveying the humble taco, with a qualitative measure of one taco al pastor per stand.

One of the most popular kinds of tacos in the States, tacos al pastor (which means "shepherd's tacos") may have originated in the Mexican-Lebanese immigrant community. One look at the vertical spit al pastor pork is cooked on, and you'll see why: It's actually shawerma. But instead of threading the spit with beef and lamb marinated in garlic and herbs, Mexican cooks stack up thin strips of pork coated in a bright-red puree of chiles and herbs, then top the spit with a pineapple ring or two.

For the best tacos al pastor in Concord, go to one of the Taquerias Los Toros. This local mini-chain has one shop at the eastern end of the strip and another near the western end. Its al pastor is chopped into tiny slivers of meat, the spice mollified with the slightest hint of fruity sweetness, and when you combine the marinated pork with chopped white onions, a sprinkle of cilantro, and a teaspoon of a kicky salsa verde, you come close to blowing out your taste buds.

Just judging by tacos, the eastern Los Toros (2995 Monument) edged out all the other taquerias I tried -- its carnitas were crispier and just a bit more bacony than all the others, its chopped, grilled chicken worlds away from the shredded, poached breast meat you find all over Oakland. Both stores also do burritos, tortas, a few entrée-sized plates with rice and beans ... you know the drill. Los Toros West, the cleaner and newer of the sister stores, also serves birria (though they were out), menudo (which I generally prefer to avoid), and a red posole that I wouldn't recommend to anyone who knows how it should taste. A young couple sitting behind us were dipping spoons into brandy snifters -- or were they goldfish bowls? -- of saucy prawn cocktel. Note to self: Come back and try.

Two other taquerias merit mention, and a third a warning. I spotted El Yahualica Tacos on my way out of town on the last of my three visits, and waddled in to grab a trio of tacos. At first glance, it seemed like a charity call. A few young men stared balefully over the tops of their empty beers in the near empty room. But as I waited for my food, the taqueria began to fill up with families. And the al pastor, chicken, and carnitas tacos I received were almost as good as Los Toros'. Plus El Yahualica's full-color, picture-heavy menu was the most elaborate of all the places I visited. Definitely worth an investigation.

One local had recommended Chivo's Taqueria, a narrow, fluorescent-bulb stand whose customers all watched Telemundo as they ate. And the tacos were good. The lengua (tongue) was velvety and soft, counterbalanced by a sharp spike of tomatillo salsa. I couldn't get enough of the crunchy, porky strips of buche.

What's buche? Close as I can tell after asking every counterperson in Concord, buche is pork stomach that's cooked just like carnitas (the three-second definition of which is pork shoulder and butt cooked in its own fat). In fact, buche and carnitas are often stewed in the same pot. I saw more buche on my three trips to Monument Boulevard than I've ever seen in the rest of the Bay Area. Perhaps it's yet another example of how recent immigrant communities still crave ingredients that their Americanized kids will soon go eww over. At Chivo's I also ate a tostada topped with refried beans, onions, and strips of cueritos, or pickled pork skin (a must for anyone who likes the gelatinous texture of beef tendon).

But, apart from those three items, nothing else I tried passed muster. I had a hard time picking out the shrimp from the mass of chopped tomatoes on the ceviche tostada. I ordered a gordita (a thick, stuffed masa cake) and was slipped a paper-thin tortilla instead. And I took the pale, fatty chunks of pork in the chile verde as an affront.

Now for the warning: Mexican Burritos made such sloppy tacos that they needed to be served in paper bowls. The taqueria's al pastor had no flavor, including that of pork, and in the cup o' chicken taco the filaments of shredded meat floated in a pale-orange broth. But of course, no one around me was eating tacos. They come to Mexican Burritos for burritos, and my circus-tent-sized chile colorado burrito stuffed with shredded beef in a tomato-chile sauce was a resounding success. All a question of getting the right meat, I suppose.

But taquerias aren't your only source for tacos. Each of Monument Boulevard's four Latino mercados has a meat counter. Next to the butcher, a taco maker. The quality of the tacos I ate at the markets varied from pass-over to must-order. Near the back of Del Valle Supermercado, one of the most established businesses on the strip, was a full-sized taqueria stand surrounded by young, homesick men. They all ordered tortas. So did I. The supersized taco al pastor I also bought was filled with dried-out meat dyed a suspicious cherry red. However, the torta -- a griddle-crisped French roll slathered with refried beans and guacamole, then heaped with carnitas -- could have cured anyone's homesickness. Add to the to-do list: Return for the buche and birria.

The newest, glitziest market on the strip is Los Rancheros, which opened a mere four weeks ago. It doesn't have that shopped-in feel yet, but the produce bins contained geometrically complex arrangements of fresh produce, and all the meat looked bright and new. The tiny stall in the back sells aguas frescas and licuados (fruit shakes) in flavors like plantain -- which in shake form is just as fragrant but not as cloying as banana -- as well as tacos, burritos, and tortas. Skip the shrimp ceviche, which was barely tossed with lime and tomato, and zero in on the tacos. Again, Los Rancheros' chicken was marinated and grilled, not poached, and its al pastor on par with El Yahualica's. As at the best of Concord's taquerias, each three-inch round held flavors so concentrated you had to let your palate clear between bites.

In terms of depth and breadth of the food you can find, Concord's Monument Corridor isn't Fruitvale -- yet. But as each new taqueria heralds, the neighborhood is definitely on the upswing.

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