In a city that’s known for the quality of its Mexican food, La Taqueria is in a class of its own.
When Miguel Jara opened the restaurant in March of 1973, it was a small operation, with everything made fresh, mostly by family members. That homemade touch is still in evidence today, with every taco, burrito and quesadilla made to order.
“I don’t know why I decided to open a restaurant,” Jara says, 46 years later. “I didn’t know anything about business, but it’s been one hell of a ride. A lot of good things have happened to me, and my family, because of my little place. Somebody up there must like me.”
Located on a busy stretch of Mission Street - between 24th and 25th Streets - La Taqueria looks like a small Spanish mission and would be easy to pass by, except for the crowds of hungry people that fill the sidewalk from the moment they open their doors at 11:00 am, until they close at 8:45. The lines move fast, passing by a no-frills counter where the beans, cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole are on display. “We don’t put rice in our burritos or tacos,” Jara says. “I love rice, but rice can soak up the juices and our meat is so good, I don’t want to take away from the flavor. People say our burritos are ‘riceless’ - like priceless. That’s nice to hear.”
The restaurant is small, an intimate space with a warm, friendly atmosphere. “It took almost a year to get the place open,” Jara says. “I built the counters and kitchen, plastered the walls and made the long wooden tables and chairs that people still sit on. They’ve lasted all this time, although they sometimes grow legs. About 20 years ago, someone came in and told me he saw one of our chairs walking up Mission Street. I ran out and caught the guy who had it. He told me, ‘I come from El Paso, and this is the best burrito I’ve ever had. I wanted this chair as a memento.’”
The carnitas, carne asada, and beans are slow-cooked, twice a day, in La Taqueria’s tiny kitchen – “We can only fit two people in there, but we make it work.” Each order is sizzled up fresh and chopped while it’s still steaming hot. ”Years back, after we were open a while, I went back home to Tijuana and visited the corner stores where I used to buy my tacos. I asked them for their recipes and they gave me the ingredients for the sauce we still use on our meat. It’s a secret I never tell anybody.”
Business was brisk their first year, but it slowed down as the days grew shorter and the holidays approached. “I was worried the cold weather was keeping people away, “ Jara recalled. “That first Thanksgiving, we cooked up turkeys and gave every customer a free turkey taco. One of our regulars came in with his band and they played all day. That was our first Thanksgiving. Business been good ever since.”
Although the lines are long, the preparation is efficient, with patrons, and the workers behind the counter, exchanging playful banter. After the register rings you up – cash only – you find a seat at the wooden tables and chairs that fill the restaurant and the patio outside.
Every table has a plastic squeeze tube of green sauce, still made from the recipe Jara’s mother gave him. It’s hot: not toned down for timid taste buds and the agua frescas are made with fresh fruit – strawberry, mango, pineapple – blended by hand. “Everything we make is based on my mother’s recipes, so I remember my mom every time we cook.”
La Taqueria, 2889 Mission Street, is open Wednesday to Saturday, 11:00 am – 8:45 pm, Sunday 11:00