Taqueria La Alteña was sadly one of the victims of a four-alarm fire that tore through a grand old building on January 28th. The building on the corner of Mission and 22nd Streets housed 65 tenants, including children, and more than two dozen businesses. One man died, and all of the families, business owners and employees that were housed in the 106-year-old building were displaced. Some of the businesses, including Nieves Cinco de Mayo and Thalia’s Jewelry Shop, have found new locations.
So too has Taqueria La Alteña, which recently reopened nearby at Cava 22.
Ramon Valle had owned the taqueria since the mid-80s, and his brother Samuel Valle owns Cava 22, a bar/restaurant on the corner of 22nd and Bartlett. Both brothers came from Mexico to fulfill their dreams of being business owners in America, and both had succeeded, until the night of the fire. Fortunately, they were able to reopen La Alteña in part of the space at Cava 22. The brothers have plans to one day buy their own building and open the taqueria again as its own business.
“We learned a very hard lesson, not owning our building,” said Samuel Valle. There’s no signage on the door to the taqueria, but there will be at a future date.
Other than the location, nothing has changed about the taqueria — oh, except for the fact that you can now have a margarita with your taco! Customers can order their drinks at the bar in Cava 22, and either bring their food over from the taqueria side after ordering at the counter, or take your margarita into the smaller space. Either way, you’re a winner.
Cava 22 has mariachis and a karaoke night, but the taqueria is quieter, and you can still watch a soccer match on the t.v. while you eat.
La Alteña had been a standard for me and the BF; we’d do take-out at least two to three times a month from there. We were so glad to learn, by way of a tip from a neighbor, that they’d reopened. We hustled ourselves over one night and ordered a carne asada torta for me, and the carne asada platter for the BF. The one good test of a taqueria for me is the carne asada – grilled marinated skirt steak.
I ordered my torta with avocado slices, as opposed to guacamole, which is an option.
The meat was as flavorful and beefy as I remembered it, standing up to the crema (Mexican sour cream), lettuce, tomatoes, and thick grilled bolillo (crusty bread roll). A very satisfying sandwich, and more than enough for dinner, accompanied with tortilla chips (which, I must say, are not my favorite taqueria chips) and sauces from their fresh salsa bar.
The BF’s platter was huge. And again, the meat had such a great beefiness to it. Lovely that they add grilled cebollitas (scallions) as you would typically find in Mexico, but don’t often find here in Mission taquerias. Their rice was quite good that day, as well – another true test of a good Mexican restaurant.
La Alteña (which means, “Lady of the Highlands”), still serves their fresh jugos – their lovely, refreshing fruit juices (cantaloupe, strawberry, jamica, tamarind, and of course, the sweet/cinnamon rice-based drink, horchata). There are breakfast burritos, enchiladas, ceviche tostadas, and if you so desire, you can make that burrito a mojado (“wet” – a burrito drenched in enchilada sauce and cheese). And of course, tacos!
I had an al pastor taco (on the left), which is pork marinated in pineapple and chiles, spices – much like Turkey’s (and other nearby lands’) doner kabob – rendering a tender, sweet/smoky and thinly sliced meat; and a chorizo taco. Mexican chorizo is typically a mixture of fatty minced pork, vinegar and chile powder, taken out of its casing and fried into a mash that resembles ground beef. It is often served mixed into scramble eggs. As you can see, the chorizo had these lovely browned bits which gave it great texture, as well as wonderful smoky flavor. Both were juicy and really large for $2.75 apiece. Of course, you can make those a super, too, and/or add other fixings, such as cheese, avocado, sour cream, etc. Me, I like to taste the meat.
The BF had a carne asada burrito this time, with black beans. Typically, it was huge – as big as his forearm – but I thought the flavor of the meat was rather dimmed, mixed in with all the carb goodness. Maybe it just needed more hot sauce.
I was excited to learn that they also serve menudo on the weekends.
Menudo is a traditional Mexican soup, often eaten as a cure for “la cruda” (hangover) in the mid-morning-to-lunch hours, or for special family occasions. The soup is made from long and slow cooked beef tripe and can contain a variety of other meats, served with wedges of lime, chopped cilantro and onions, red chili peppers, and dried Mexican oregano. Sopped up with bolillos or corn tortillas, it’s a fragrant wake up call to your taste buds.
The bowl they brought was big enough to bathe a small child in, and chock-full of tripe, fatty bits of pork, tendon, and perhaps other cuts I couldn’t identify. Unfortunately, the pepper-based broth was bland, and while I doctored it up with all the above-mentioned accoutrements, plus a bunch of hot sauce, I couldn’t get away from the fact that it tasted like water with meat thrown in. Too bad, because the tripe itself was cooked perfectly. Maybe it was an off morning, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.
The BF ordered chorizo and eggs (misleadingly called “sausage” and eggs on the menu.)
I liked the taste of the chorizo, but he felt it rather lacked in flavor, too. It definitely did not have the same zest that it had in my taco the other night. His rice this time was also not as good as on our previous visit. It could very well depend on who is in the kitchen as to how good your food is on any particular day. I’m happy they still make my tacos right. The crowd there on a Saturday morning was mostly Latino families eating breakfast. It really still feels like such a neighborhood place.
Cava 22 also serves food, of course, with a much more extended menu here.
Regardless of the up-and-downness of our meals, I’m delighted our little taqueria is back. Here’s hoping the other businesses, their employees, and all the families that the fire devastated, find similar good fortune in their search for new homes. And best of luck to la Familia Valle!
Taqueria La Alteña
Inside Cava 22
3239 22nd St., San Francisco, CA 94110