Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland, an alternative to International Boulevard's restaurant row, is home to two of the Bay Area's top spots for Jalisco-style food.
The moment I first tucked in to a bowl of pozole at Taqueria Campos, an unassuming spot next to Cesar Chavez Park in East Oakland, I felt the weight of history, imagining the generations of Campos women who must’ve taught Ana Maria and her sister, Margarita, how to perfect this classic dish. But no, according to Ana, she and her sister taught each other how to cook. “We didn’t know the first thing about cooking when we started out,” Campos explained, laughing. “And we practiced every day for a long time until we got it right.” So much for my theories about how great restaurants are born.
In this case, perfection begins with broth. Slow-cooked pork bones (sometimes including pig head) form the base, and Ana leaves enough fat to infuse each bite of hominy with ancho and guajillo chile flavor. If this sounds—and tastes—simple, it’s not. There’s a lot of balancing to be done, between hominy and pork meat, broth and chile. The end result, in capable hands, is a delicate, smoky, chewy, fatty marvel. Garnishes are traditional, of course: diced onions, cilantro, lime, and a few fresh-fried tostadas for dunking or soaking, depending on your druthers.
Another destination soup here is caldo tlapeño, a chicken, chickpea and vegetable soup rendered spicy by the addition of chipotle chiles to the long-simmered chicken broth. Big chunks of carrot and zucchini help ease the burn, as do thick homemade tortillas, grilled to order (three per bowl). It’s served with rice, but doesn’t really need the extra heft. Just add a little diced onion, a lot of cilantro, and some lime to brighten it.
Not in the mood for soup? Equally compelling are the Campos sisters’ tacos of carne asada, carnitas, cabeza and carne al pastor. Of these, my favorites are the cabeza, meltingly tender beef cheeks and adjacent meat from the head of the cow, and the carne asada, grilled strip steak with a slightly crisp exterior and well-done but soft interior. Pay the extra $.75 for homemade tortillas, so much better than the packaged version. And ask Ana for some of her green sauce, a mild, tomatillo-based salsa that goes nicely with both.
And if there were such a thing as a destination chicharrones restaurant, this would be it. The Campos sisters don’t make these bits of fried pork skin every day, but when they do, they are served, free, alongside the chips and salsa, and hit the right spot between crunchy and meltingly fatty.
Beverages are limited to homemade horchata and two rotating flavors of aguas frescas, none of which is too sweet. The pineapple agua fresca is mostly pulpy fruit, only slightly muted with water.
A few blocks down Foothill, on the opposite side of the street, is El Taco Zamorano, a cave-like space that requires your eyes to adjust to the low light. Owned by Emma Guzman and quietly in business for 33 years, El Zamorano is a solid choice for pan-Mexican food. While you can get everything from mariscos cocktails to burritos, Jalisco is the region best represented by the menu.
We tried a little from every column on the several-page menu, and the clear winners were the tacos, especially the carne asada and carnitas. The beef was lightly seared and topped with diced white onion and cilantro, and the pork was soft, in traditional Jalisco-highlands style, as opposed to crispy, the preferred style in other parts of Mexico. (It’s odd that Zamorano is the name of a town famous for crispy carnitas, but so be it.)
The same carnitas appears as a dinner plate, but in this case, instead of being shredded for tacos, the meat is left in large chunks for you to pull apart. The fat is left on, which, in my book, is the right decision. This plate comes with chunky guacamole, a simple version with just tomato, onion and cilantro, and a squeeze of lime, and the brightest, freshest green avocado meat possible.
Zamorano’s combination plates are a good value. The chile relleno and enchilada plate is enough for two people—the eggy relleno fried to brown and covered in tomato sauce and cheese, and the enchilada smothered in chile verde, medium-spicy—and they meld together with the rice and beans to cover almost every inch of a large oval platter.
Margaritas are strong, but from a pre-fab mix, so stick to the Mexican-import beers, Negro Modelo and Corona.
On each of three visits, our server was Soco, who’s been working there for more than 20 years. She attests to the care that is evident in the preparation of this food. “I’ve eaten at all the places around here over many years,” she said, “and this kitchen makes some of the most lovingly prepared traditional food I’ve ever had.” I wouldn’t disagree.