"There's a place in Mexico City called Charco de Las Ranas, and they put al pastor on the map," explains Cesar Gonzales, owner of Hillcrest's Mamá Testa Taqueria. "I have a lot of Mexico City customers, and they tell me I put Charco de Las Ranas off the map once I did my al pastor. You cannot get a better compliment."
Mamá Testa is a true taqueria in the sense that the only items on the menu are tacos-lots and lots of them.
When Gonzales first moved to the U.S. from Mexico 16 years ago, his family took him to a Mexican restaurant in his new home of Modesto, Calif. While everyone else was eating, he was staring at his plate, aghast at what passed for Mexican food in the United States. "Right there and then, I realized there's nobody doing Mexican food justice in this country," said Gonzales.
The menu at Mamá Testa is diverse, with a lot of surprises in store for gringos like me who've never had anything other than standard taco-shop stuff. All of the dishes come from Gonzales' family recipes, which he traced back to their states of origin to find out how to serve them authentically.
The main types of tacos are blanditos (soft), guisados (stews), duros (crunchy) and cesta (steamed). All are excellent, so making a bad choice is impossible.
De Alemán are the aforementioned al pastor. These are soft tacos served on fresh corn tortillas. The tortillas are small, topped with little piles of tender and lean marinated pork, onion and pineapple, with a side of spicy salsa. Unlike the al pastor you might have had at a taco shop, Mamá's is not even close to greasy. This tangy, vinegary taco will ruin your taste for lesser versions.
Also impressive are the Mividita. These fish tacos hail from the state of Guerrero and consist of deep-fried catfish dressed with coleslaw and queso fresco and tucked into a crunchy shell. The coleslaw is fresh, with a thick dressing-making this the least messy fish taco I've yet eaten. The taco shell is deep fried with the fish inside, so the fish flavor permeates the taco. Highly recommended.
As good as those two items are, my favorite is definitely La Tuya Tinga. As Gonzales explains, "Tinga is a dish that every state in Mexico has." Mamá's version comes from the state of Michoacan. Shredded pork is stewed with Mamá's house-made chorizo and chipotle, then served in soft corn tortillas. The resulting taco is spicy and has a rich pork flavor but no discernable greasiness.
Mamá's also makes a number of excellent salsas, with eight served daily. The salsas are wonderful but completely unnecessary, thanks to the rich taste of the tacos. In fact, as much as I love salsa, I was loath to put any on my tacos lest I miss the subtle flavors. However, I was quite happy to dip my chips in the salsa while waiting for my food.
Mamá Testa is open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. till late Friday and Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Prices are affordable, ranging from $4.99 to $8.99.