Patino's Quesabirria Slam Dunk
The quesabirria taco has Mexican food enthusiasts happily in its grip, all of us grinning orange oil-slicked smiles now that the Tijuana specialty has made it this far north. But while dunking your way through an order of the crispy, gooey, beef tacos with a side of deep red consommé goes by all too quickly, the journey from pot to plate is a long one.
According to Gabriela Patino, who works with her mother, Beatriz Cruz, and father, Rodrigo Patino, in Patino's Mexican Food truck (4050 Broadway, Eureka), Cruz starts by marinating the beef over night before slowly simmering it with spices over low heat for three to four hours. That process takes around 14 hours before she's tossed a single corn tortilla on the grill. Once the tortillas are cooking, they get a splash of the rich, fatty broth from cooking the beef, which lends the tacos a bubbly, crispy texture. Then Cruz adds Monterey jack cheese, a scoop of the shredded beef, and a sprinkling of cilantro and chopped white onion before flipping the tacos closed.
An order of quesabirria comes with four of the tacos, oozing with melted cheese, edges browned on the grill, with improbably tender meat inside. A plunge in the consommé (possibly scooping up a glistening morsel of fat) adds to the juiciness and stewy flavor, and a squeeze of lime cuts the richness and sharpens the flavors from the marinade.
"I always grew up eating them and it always has been a tradition for my brothers' and my birthdays," says Gabriela, whose mother and father were born in Mexico City and Guanajuato, Mexico, respectively, and moved to Humboldt more than 25 years ago. Cruz has been working in restaurant kitchens as well as her own for years, starting with the now defunct Rico's Tacos, Rita's Café, Fiesta Grill and Tacos El Pueblo. "My mom has been working in the kitchen for a really, really long time and she thought it was time to start her own business," says Gabriela. In January of this year, that's what the family did.
The Patino's truck is parked by Pierson's Building Center daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., drawing a steady crowd for its classic Mexican truck menu, as well as dollar street tacos on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The homemade menudo soup with tripe is a recent addition to weekend offerings and, so far, it's selling out, so show up early.
Fries to Flan at Humboldt Bay Burgers
The menu on the side of the Humboldt Bay Burgers truck parked at 14th and Broadway in Eureka since the end of last month is long — the more than 80 items (not including drinks) are a challenge to the decision averse and, in the case of the sandwiches at the top, the short. But if you ask, co-owner Leobardo Rivera will lean on an elbow at the order window and help you narrow it down.
Rivera, who owns the business with partner Juventino Cabrera, offers some breakfast items and salads, but mostly burgers and sandwiches, including a hefty list of grilled cheese offerings. It's what he knows best after years of cranking out orders at diners and chains like Denny's and IHOP. Originally from the city of Zacatecas in Central Mexico, he says he came to Humboldt for work in 1995, starting out as a dishwasher before moving into the kitchen. "I never worked in a Mexican restaurant — I don't know how to make Mexican food," he says with a laugh.
But sandwiches and burgers he has down. "Everything is easy," he says, explaining how he swaps toppings, fillings and sauces for variations on a handful of proteins, breads and buns. "I don't waste very much food." And so a little sauce and grilled pineapple turn a blended beef and pork patty into a Hamburguesa Al Pastor. Once he has a handle on what sells best, he says he may whittle the menu down some.
So far, the Cowboy Burger, topped with onion rings, bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and house sauce is a popular order. Another big seller is the Smokehouse Burger with Swiss cheese, grilled onions, house sauce and mushrooms. Sourdough is put to its crustiest and most noble purpose on grilled cheese sandwiches like the simple cheddar item or the Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese, a happy, melty mess of pickled jalapeño slices, pepper jack and cream cheese.
The thick, crusty, skin-on garlic fries alone are worth stopping for, golden and downright creamy. Thankfully, Rivera doesn't lose a single fry tossing them in oil and chopped fresh garlic before shaking them into a takeout box. The surprise at the end of the menu is Arora Almador's dense, rich flan, dark with caramelized sugar and none too sweet.
With help from family members, Rivera is prepping in a commercial kitchen at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds and working the Humboldt Bay Burgers truck daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for now, trying to build up a customer base. It's a lot of hours but he says he spent so long working hard for other people, he's happy to work for himself at last. "Later on, I might take some breaks."
Share your tips about What's Good with Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her), arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill and Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org.