One of the East Bay’s Best Taquerias Is Coming to San Rafael

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A michelada and a tray of three quesabirria tacos on an outdoor table.
Customers will be able to order a michelada and quesabirria-style "red tacos" at the new San Rafael outpost of El Tucán.  (Tony Tamayo)

Marin County doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being one of the Bay Area’s premier taco destinations. (Some might even call certain stretches of the wealthy, predominantly white county a taco desert of sorts.) But no longer: Later this year, El Tucán, one of the East Bay’s very best taquerias, will open a new outpost on the San Rafael waterfront that’s larger and even more ambitious than its original Richmond location. 

Like the original El Tucán, tacos at the new spot—called El Tucán Tacos and Beer—will feature all the hallmarks of the Tijuana style: handmade tortillas, a dollop of guacamole on every taco and, most importantly, meats that have been grilled over fire. The idea is for customers at the new taqueria to be able to enjoy some of the tastiest carne asada in the Bay on the waterfront deck, cold beer or michelada in hand. 

According to co-owner Alfredo Padilla, El Tucán Tacos and Beer should open in December or January, in the space previously occupied by Pier 15, a San Rafael institution that closed in the early months of the pandemic.

When El Tucán first burst onto Richmond’s much-vaunted Mexican food scene two years ago, the taqueria’s biggest point of distinction was its focus on Tijuana-style tacos—a rarity in the Bay Area. It was, and remains, one of a very small number of taquerias in the East Bay that grills its meats over fire instead of just on a flat-top. Its quesatacos, whose tortillas are gilded with a thin layer of brown, crispy cheese, can go toe to toe with any taco in the Bay Area.

Three tacos, topped with guacamole and crispy cheese, on a paper plate.
El Tucán's calling card is its Tijuana-style quesatacos. (Luke Tsai)

The restaurant immediately drew long lines at all times of day and, according to Padilla, maintained its popularity even through the worst of the pandemic. “Being mostly a takeout restaurant helped us stay busy,” Padilla says.

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When business did slow down during the very first month of shelter in place, that gave Padilla and his taqueros time to experiment with their menu a bit. For the first time, they started selling quesabirria—the cheesy, red-tinged birria tacos that are the Bay Area taco scene’s most famous Tijuana import—along with other “red tacos” prepared in the same style. They also added a well-griddled version of a California burrito, that deliciously fry-stuffed SoCal classic. 

Exterior of a restaurant with "El Tucán Tacos and Beer" signage.
The exterior of the former Pier 15 space in San Rafael's Canal neighborhood. (Tony Tamayo)

 

All of those new additions will be on the menu at the San Rafael restaurant, which is a joint venture between Padilla, his brother Edgar and a third partner, Victor Ceja. The new El Tucán is located in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood, in what Padilla acknowledges is a bit of a weird location, “literally in the middle of an industrial area” surrounded by car dealerships. It’s one of the only restaurants that he’s aware of in the immediate vicinity. 

But the neighborhood also has its share of perks. The Canal neighborhood is the heart of Marin County’s working class Latino and Mexican American community, much of which lives in the sprawl of apartment complexes just a few blocks away from the restaurant. There is, in this part of San Rafael, a built-in audience for superlative tacos.

Meanwhile, Padilla is excited about the space itself, which at 2,000 square feet is much larger than the Richmond location. This will be Padilla’s first sit-down restaurant, with indoor seating available in the bar area and dining room, with an additional 40 seats out back on the deck facing the water. Along the side of the building, there will be a little taco window for customers who want to grab their food to go. 

The larger space will give Padilla the chance to flesh out the menu a bit. Most excitingly, there will be Baja-style fried fish and fried shrimp tacos—another iconic category of Baja California foods that’s rarely done well here in the Bay. Unlike the Richmond taqueria, the new restaurant has a liquor license and plans to offer a dozen beers on tap, so it’ll also add some bar bites to the menu, such as chicken wings served with housemade salsa—like Buffalo wings with a Mexican twist, Padilla says. The restaurant will also serve five kinds of margaritas and five different micheladas, with both cocktails available as a flight.

According to Padilla, part of the reason he felt confident about the San Rafael expansion is that he often gets customers who drive across the bridge to Richmond from the North Bay just to eat at El Tucán—because of the lack of “good, authentic tacos” in the area, they tell him.

“I think people are going to like the style that we have,” Padilla says.

El Tucán Tacos and Beer will open in December or January at 15 Harbor Street in San Rafael. Check El Tucán’s Instagram page for updates.