Taqueria Time

Authentic South 24th Street drive-thru is open late You can run through a Tex-Mex drive-up anywhere in town and spend $1.50 for a beef taco. It won’t be good, but it might satisfy your craving for sautéed meat with cheese and salsa. Or you could travel to the far end of South 24th Street and stop at Taqueria Tijuana, one of many taco joints in South Omaha, for a taco fix. The unassuming restaurant occupies the corner of 24th and P, and sells Mexican food a la carte. It’s clean, with Telemundo playing on the flatscreen TV in its not-so-subtle way. Taqueria Tijuana specializes in simple small-plate Mexican favorites such as tacos, gorditas, sopes and quesadillas, and you probably won’t hear much English. Taqueria Tijuana opened 10 years ago and is owned by Miguel Hernandez. He and Maria Hernandez bravely serve the late-night crowd her precious tacos (the restaurant is conveniently open until 2 a.m. on weekends). Everything on the menu revolves around tortillas stuffed with variations on meat (pork or beef) and toppings, including gorditas, quesadillas, tacos and sopes. Menudo, the famous Mexican soup, is offered only on weekends. Prices are great, with beef tacos going for $1.50 and nothing but menudo crossing the $5 mark. The restaurant also serves horchata, a very sweet rice-based juice. And the dining-room refrigerator displays a rainbow assortment of Jarritos Mexican soda. The wait staff is friendly and helpful, though some don’t speak much English. Thankfully for all, the language of food is simple: a please and thank you go a long way to get good tacos served packed in a plastic basket here. Two or three of the sloppy finger food is enough to stuff oneself. And although the restaurant only takes cash (no cards and no checks), it’s easy to feed oneself on $7 or less. Visiting one busy Friday night with friends, we negotiated for several plain tacos and a cheese quesadilla for the vegetarian. The beef tacos were served with two salsas, one green and one very spicy and creamy orange; seared hot peppers; and a dish of radishes and limes. Guacamole on the side tempered the heat of the salsas, which were fragrant but too spicy for my weak palate. The tacos all come in traditional small soft flour tortillas and are heavy on the steak cubes, which is well done but seasoned perfectly and simply with salt, pepper and sautéed onion. Cilantro adds a crisp freshness to the meal, the onion, crunch, while the guacamole mellows it out. Most taquerias, including Taqueria Tijuana, present food without a paper menu. A board above the cash register station displays the prices and offerings. But it’s easy enough to ascertain that tacos are the thing to get at a taqueria. Perhaps even better are the sopes — akin to a taco ingredient-wise, but served on a fried cornbread (something like fried polenta). The helpings are heaping and a tad more filling than the meaty taco. Cilantro and onions are present as is the delectable queso fresco, a mild and soft white cheese traditional to Latin cuisine. Quesadillas come stuffed to overflowing with melting white cheese and the same sautéed meat. Every time I’ve gone to Taqueria Tijuana, once the baskets are scraped clean of all the good bits, my friends and I experiment with the seared sweet-and-spicy peppers delivered to the table with salsa and lime wedges. Hot peppers are a part of the culinary landscape I personally haven’t explored much. These peppers piqued my interest. Once seared, probably over a small flame, the skin crisps, and coated with salt, it’s quite savory. Biting into the flesh immediately triggers the sweet sensors, but the heat comes, as it does, after you’ve swallowed and it’s too late. That’s no matter in this case, as these peppers aren’t too hot to handle. The complexity of flavors is reflective of true Mexican cuisine. This is not the place for ground beef over-seasoned with chili powder and salt, served with sour cream and soggy tomatoes. Taqueria Tijuana, along with its taco-serving South Omaha brethren, has the subtlety and depth of flavor and texture that draws people to the land south of the border. Taqueria Tijuana, 24th and P, is open Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Call 731.1281.

posted at 11:53 am
on Friday, September 24th, 2010

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