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Taquerias Come and Go, but La Vic’s Orange Sauce Is Forever

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Illustration: Two men devour tacos and burritos while pouring hot sauce from squeeze bottles directly into their mouths.
San Jose’s La Victoria Taqueria (aka La Vic’s), is famous for its orange sauce — and for feeding hungry college students until 3 a.m. (Thien Pham)

The Midnight Diners is a regular collaboration between KQED food editor Luke Tsai and graphic novelist Thien Pham. Follow them each week as they explore the hot pot restaurants, taco carts and 24-hour casino buffets that make up the Bay Area’s after-hours dining scene.

I’ve never stumbled into La Victoria Taqueria at 2 o’clock in the morning, bleary-eyed and half-starving midway through a six-hour cram session during finals week at San Jose State. Never crushed a plate of carne asada fries, half-drunk, after a night of dancing at Agenda or SJ Live back in the day.

So my devotion to La Vic’s legendary orange sauce — the creamy, chile-flecked condiment that spawned a hundred imitators — is merely practical rather than religious. I just think it’s one of the most delicious hot sauces in the Bay Area. Almost certainly the most delicious you can get your hands on at 3 a.m.

And after our recent late-night visit, I think I understand the hype.

Open since 1998, the original San Carlos Street location of La Vic’s sits kitty-corner to SJSU’s main campus, inside a cheery, slightly ramshackle old house — like a cartoon Victorian where a child detective goes mystery hunting. The family-owned taqueria offers a very standard college town burrito shop menu: enormously overstuffed tacos and burritos, quesadillas and loaded nachos and fries.


The only difference is that everywhere you look, there’s orange sauce. Twelve-ounce squeeze bottles on every table, and lined up in the fridge case behind the counter. Multiple orange sauce posters on the walls. College kids — so many college kids, in gym shorts or decked out for a night at the club — ordering extra tubs of orange sauce to go with their takeout burritos. Even the cup for our agua fresca was decorated with a picture of a bottle of orange sauce. (“Orange you glad you tried,” reads the tagline.)

Illustration: Exterior of La Victoria Taqueria, in an old Victorian house, lit up at night.
The original La Vic’s is located in downtown San Jose, right across the street from San Jose State University. (Thien Pham)

Look, if we’re being strictly honest, there are plenty of taquerias in San Jose — and all around the Bay — where you can get a tastier, more well-constructed burrito than the ones La Vic’s is rolling out these days. You can find more flavorful carnitas and juicier, less gristly carne asada. There are other restaurants that do a better job of piling meat and cheese on top of French fries.

But man does that orange sauce paper over a thousand sins.

Like any well-guarded family recipe, the actual contents of the sauce are shrouded in secrecy and wild speculation. In public interviews, La Vic’s owners have only revealed a handful of obvious ingredients: garlic, onions, tomatoes, dried red chiles. Meanwhile, orange-sauce conspiracy theorists have long debated the source of the sauce’s telltale creaminess, which has been rumored to come from crushed-up crackers, mayonnaise and even leftover chorizo grease (!). The restaurant, for its part, stresses that the sauce has always been 100% vegan. (I, and most copycat recipes, suspect the creaminess just comes from emulsified vegetable oil.)

Whatever the secret, La Vic’s orange sauce is delicious. It has a bright, garlicky heat that immediately perks up the palate and a tanginess that keeps it from being overly heavy, making it a natural foil to salty grilled meats. And we loved how the sauce’s slightly dense, creamy texture allows it to cling to surfaces instead of making the food soggy like your typical watery salsa.

We also figured out how, if you order smartly, you can put together a legitimately solid meal at La Vic’s, even apart from squirting orange sauce onto every bite. First pro tip: It’s the super tacos, not the burritos, that are the star of the menu, especially if you order them with lengua, which is the tastiest and most tender of the meat options. The super tacos feature thick, double-stacked tortillas that the taqueros will crisp up on request, and they’re loaded with guacamole and sour cream, which provide a refreshing tang.

Second tip: Don’t sleep on the zippy and criminally underrated green sauce, which some La Vic’s loyalists like even better than the orange sauce.

Third: It’s true that the carne asada fries, which come loaded with steak, nacho cheese, sour cream and guac, are the ideal drunk food. But the fries here aren’t especially crispy, and it’s only a matter of minutes before the whole thing turns into a soggy mess. Consider instead the nachos. They have a much more resilient crunch and are, in my view, the perfect vessel for orange sauce.

Unless you count my own cooking, that is. Like so many other La Vic’s initiates, I dropped $8 on a bottle of the sauce to bring home — to test if it does, in fact, taste amazing on everything, like so many of the glowing reviews I’d read. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been putting it on scrambled eggs and homemade carnitas, stirring it into bowls of rice and beans. And it really is true: I haven’t been disappointed yet.

La Victoria Taqueria has six Bay Area locations, mostly in San Jose. The original location at 140 E. San Carlos St. is open from 7 a.m.–3 a.m. daily.

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