For those who speak a tad more Spanish than it takes to order a cerveza, the name Mama Testa draws the same dirty chuckles as the popular chain Pink Taco—but similarities stop there. Unilingual and guera, I never stood a chance to appreciate all the double-entendre scattered across owner Cesar Gonzalez's PG-13 menu at his tacos-only Hillcrest joint. Without an interpreter, I've relied solely on staff T-shirts that instruct—one way or another: “Put some Mexican in you.”
There are 29 ways to do it at Mama Testa Taqueria (1417a University Ave.), with nearly all of Mexico's states represented authentically in taco form. Until recently, I figured Mojados de Carne was a dish developed late one night in the kitchen of a hungry genius who revived bordering-on-stale rolled tacos by adding them to a bowl of soup. “I tell people, ‘Don't worry about what it is—tacos or soup. Just eat it,'” Gonzalez says.
Every day, Gonzalez boils a caldron of beef with onions and garlic; the meat winds up in tacos, and its cooking liquid gets a dose of secret ingredients and spices that make it the base for his famed soup. Four corn tortillas are stuffed with the stewed beef, rolled, fried and chopped to order, then placed in the zesty broth. Queso fresco, diced onion and cilantro confetti the dish, and a squeeze of lime lends the essential, finishing tang.
“I wanted to change what people think of taquitos by serving them like they do in the state of Guerrero,” Gonzalez says. Indeed, just one suck ignited my burning love affair with this hybrid dish; crunchy to start, the taquitos plump with spicy broth over time and fall apart, flavoring the soup with tortilla and bits of beef caramelized from the fryer.
Since 2004, the ethos behind Mama Testa has inspired many popular restaurants in town. The first taco shop to serve free-range meats, it also introduced the avant-garde salsa bar with eight twisted varieties, and his dining room premiered loteria and luchador themes. “I used to get mad,” Gonzalez says. “But now I'm flattered.” After kicking Bobby Flay's ass on national TV in a fish taco Throwdown, there's no denying that Gonzalez has skills and heuvos grandes to boot.