IN THE KITCHEN Celina Zermeño “is the heart of all of this,” according to her son, Jose Barajas, who owns Taqueria La Tapatia in Marlborough. She has lived in the United States for nearly 30 years but hails from a small city near Guadalajara, Mexico. “We would have large parties at our house, and Mom said one day, ‘We should open a restaurant,’ ” said Barajas, who likens their relationship in the kitchen to a TV comedy. “Sometimes, it’s hard working with your mom,” he laughed, “but she’s the whole recipe. She doesn’t write anything down.”
THE LOCALE The taqueria is on Lincoln Street, in a colorful storefront giving way to a similarly festive interior, with about 40 seats split between a dining room in front and bar stools toward the back. My Sunday afternoon visit found a mix of families, groups of friends, and solo diners digging into the restaurant’s well-priced fare.
ON THE MENU Barajas is upfront — and humble — about the taqueria’s reach and appeal. “We don’t claim to be a 5-star restaurant. Somebody who expects that, this is not the place for you,” he said. What wins new customers and brings many others back, he said, is “the quality of the food, and the obvious pride we take in it. We don’t use the word ‘authentic’ to describe our food. We say ‘real.’ ”
The menu is lengthy; where to start? “If you’ve never been here, you have to try the tacos,” Barajas said. The award-winning tacos brim with beef, chorizo, roasted pork, and several other cuts, all lovingly wrapped inside a double layer of corn tortillas. A squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkle of chopped onions and cilantro are the only accoutrements needed. We enjoyed the shredded bistec taco; at $1.75 a pop, you could sample every one.
For heartier appetites, Barajas points to entrees like the carne a la Mexicana ($16). “If you’re a beef eater, that’s one of the plates you have to try,” he said. Chopped steak is stir-fried in a special sauce (he won’t reveal the ingredients) and served with rice, refried beans, and tortillas on the side.
Even more top secret is the recipe behind the mole poblano with chicken ($12). “It’s so under wraps,’’ said Barajas, “Mom never showed me how she makes it — she prepares it before anybody comes into work.” (He does know it contains chocolate, dried chile, and molcajete-ground spices.) The carnitas de puerco plate ($15) is another draw, the boneless roasted pork cooked in its own juices and served with rice, beans, guacamole and, when available, a fried jalapeno pepper.
Snack-like options and appetizers make up a good portion of the menu. Tacos dorados ($3.50) resemble flautas, the fried tortillas curled around shredded chicken and topped with lettuce, queso fresco, and salsa. Gorditas ($5.25) are soft, chubby homemade corn tortillas stuffed with shredded meat (our chicken version was good, but a little dry), refried beans, lettuce, onions, and queso fresco.
Tamales ($4) are steamed inside corn husks; Barajas recommends ordering them in the afternoon, when they’re at their freshest. Options include pork sautéed in red chile and chicken in green chile, their spiciness nicely soothed by the mild masa. Tostados are fried corn tortillas piled high with bright ingredients. Raw tilapia marinated in lime juice is used in the ceviche ($3.50); for the camaron tostado ($5), shrimp and avocado share the stage. “I think the heat of the cooked shrimp and the coolness of the guacamole set off the taste,” Barajas said. We agree: They’re colorful, fresh, and delicious.
The taqueria recently obtained a beer and wine license, and also offers Mexican soft drinks, fruit smoothies, and flavored waters.
Taqueria La Tapatia is at 460 Lincoln St., Marlborough; 508-624-7005, www.latapatiataqueria.com.Rachel Lebeaux can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @rachjournalist.