My torrid love affair with Tlaquepaque (Tl-AH-kay-PAH-kay) Restaurant began a few weeks ago, when we stumbled across it on Yelp and turned that into a brief Dine & Dash visit.
Soul-crushingly brief, actually, considering how often I've since thought about the restaurant's birria and torta ahogada. The stew and spicy "drunken sandwich," respectively, glowed with care and skill and depth and verve and hints of places that start far away and come as close as my table. And flavors that made me want to get hammered just so I could recover the next day with that bowl of deep brown stew full of near-liquefied beef that's been braised for four hours in oregano, pepper, garlic, sesame, cumin, clove and more. As one employee related: "The list goes on."
The stew's meat is equally redemptive in double-decked tacos. And that addictive sandwich was like a structure fire full of pork, especially when covered in a thin, stinging sauce made of chile de árbol and vinegar.
Or just take the table-side red sauce, which incorporates more chile de árbol with tomatillos and other stuff. Flecked with black bits and seeds, it's almost orange, but with enough rojo to forecast your face. Put it on everything. Then the green is a standard mix of tomatillos, cilantro and jalapeños, but somehow is free from that stomach-acid back end, leaving nothing but flavor.
It's all courtesy of 35-year-old owners Antonio and Marisela Hernandez, who hail from the eponymous region in Jalisco — a Mexican-food Garden of Eden — and have brought the touch of God to a strip-mall near North Murray Boulevard and Galley Road. It's easy to get to, there's lots of parking, prices run from $7 to $12, and the comfortable dining room is spacious and relaxing.
Not everything goes "Disco Inferno" at Tlaquepaque. The chilaquiles bring a bright, mellow tomatillo sauce over triangles of fried tortillas with sour cream. No spice concerns, either, from a crisp poblano chile relleno. And the Azada Burrito fills a fat, house-made flour tortilla with thin cuts of steak, rice, beans, lettuce, pico de gallo and cheese — standard gut-bomb delight, and little to singe the small hairs. But every bite compels a little happy dance in celebration.
You can get soft pork seared off as carnitas and paired on a large plate with tortillas, lettuce, guacamole, pico, beans, rice and lime — lime with everything, ya'll — or you can get soft pork stewed in a snappy chile verde. You can get a fine horchata (from a mix), or some thick, doughy sopapillas covered in honey and cinnamon. Actually, we hadn't even ordered any, they were just included in our to-go bag. I love this goddamn place.
Tlaquepaque is the most excited I've been about a restaurant in a long time. It's not just that the food tastes good. It's that the food tastes like effort. Sending a spoon through the pool of ruddy sauce dotted with shrimp in the camarones a la diabla is to experience a combination of flavors — an earthy, vaguely sweet house enchilada sauce mixed with more red-pepper power — that makes you feel like your money actually bought something worth eating, something you couldn't better make yourself and for less. And that's a surprisingly hard feeling to find.
But it's here.