Story By: Elizabeth Smith
Tacos have an uncertain origin, but college professor Jeffrey M. Pilcher, who spent decades researching (and tasting) the history and evolution of Mexican cuisine, believes both the word and food originated with 18th-century Mexican silver miners. At the time, the word taco referred to charges – paper-wrapped gunpowder – they used in mining. So one of the first references to tacos as food was tacos de minero, miner’s tacos.
Fast forward to today and the popularity of tacos, which have evolved into an everyday meal for many worldwide, including Napa Valley, which has a rich Mexican-American population and history. There is a plethora of options here, many from food trucks, but there are also restaurants that excel at the art of taco making. Below are a few of the best.
C CASA: AN INNOVATIVE TAQUERIA
C Casa founder Catherine Bergin has long been a taco lover, something she enjoyed during her beach travels to Baja. However, her life was forever changed after eating her first freshly caught fish taco. She described the experience as life-changing. From that moment on, she dreamed of opening a taqueria to offer healthy and fresh food, including tacos. Her dream came true in 2011 with the opening of C Casa. The menu offerings include various taco options, like grilled garlic citrus prawns, ground buffalo, spiced lamb, pork or duck carnitas, rotisserie chicken, and vegan/vegetarian choices like avocado and heirloom potatoes. The foundation for each taco is an open-faced, handcrafted, six-inch tortilla made from 100% U.S.-grown organic white corn. Toppings include local greens, vegetables, artisan cheeses, and flavorful aiolis, cremas, and sauces. C Casa’s menu is also 100% gluten-free. // www.myccasa.com
Owners Tamer Hamawi, Elise Rosenberg, and Emelie Kihlstrom founded Gran Eléctrica, a restaurant and mezcal/tequila bar in downtown Napa, to offer what they call “an authentic and market-driven Mexican menu inspired by travels abroad, particularly traditional Mexican street fare.” Under the leadership of Mexican-born chef Ignacio Beltran, Gran Eléctrica serves diverse dishes – including tacos – from different regions of Mexico using locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant’s tacos begin with fresh, hand-pressed, heirloom corn tortillas. Fillings include coliflor al pastor (crispy cauliflower), pescado estilo ensenada (beer-battered fish), cochinita pibil (achiote-marinated and braised Rancho Llano Seco pork shank and shoulder), carnitas (braised Rancho Llano Seco pork shoulder), and suadero (seared Five Dot Ranch beef brisket). The tacos are finished with toppings like achiote, peppers, red onion, cilantro, cabbage, tomatoes, homemade queso fresco, cremas and sauces, and spicy chorizo. // www.granelectrica.com
Heritage Eats, which describes itself as “where around the world meets home,” offers a variety of “fast-casual” global cuisine at affordable prices, like rice and salad bowls, Dutch crunch sandwiches, and house-made bao. Shortly after opening in 2015, owners Ben and Ali Koenig added locally inspired items to their menu, including tacos, with fillings like spicy jerk chicken, Baja shrimp, and carnitas, plus toppings such as slaw, pico de gallo, corn, and cilantro. What makes the tacos different are their blue corn tortillas, which they source from a longtime, family-owned and operated Bay Area tortilleria. “The blue corn gives a richer flavor than a traditional yellow or white corn tortilla. Proudly, we are the only restaurant in the Napa Valley to use this specific tortilla,” shared the Koenigs. // www.heritageeats.com
La Calenda in Yountville, a Thomas Keller restaurant, opened in January 2019 and is named after the Oaxacan parade that brings together the community for special occasions and celebrations. It is this joyous Oaxacan spirit one finds here in its chef, cuisine, hospitality, and interior design. Oaxaca-raised chef de cuisine, Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, brings his love for his hometown cuisine to the restaurant, which he learned from his mother, Susana Trilling, a cooking school and store owner, author, television personality, and former restauranteur. It was she who also referred him to Keller for the role at La Calenda. Trilling’s take on tacos is authentic and savory. The tortillas are house-made from corn sourced from various regions of Mexico, filled with al pastor, pescado, carnitas, barbacoa, or hongos (wild mushrooms), then topped with a variety of vegetables or fruits and sauces like salsa morita, salsa avocado tomatillo, and chipotle mayo. A suggested beverage pairing is La Calenda Margarita, whose special ingredient is pineapple agave. Also not to be missed is Trilling’s 36-ingredient mole. All dishes are gluten-free except the desserts. // www.lacalendamex.com
LA CHEVE BAKERY AND BREWS
La Cheve Bakery and Brews is owner Cinthya Cisneros’ culinary dream come true in Napa’s Cayetano Juárez Adobe (Old Adobe) built in 1845. Opening in May 2020 during the pandemic was no easy feat, but Cisneros’ love of food and family – everyone who works or dines here is part of “la familia” – immediately attracted a cult following. While known for its bakery items made by Cisneros’ mother, Momma Juana, and Cisneros’ own handcrafted beers, La Cheve (slang for beer in Mexican Spanish) also offers delicious and plentiful servings of tacos served on large and colorful, authentically designed plates. Choices include al pastor, grilled chicken, carne asada, and portobello mushroom, topped with cilantro, onion, and radishes. To keep the menu fresh, Cisneros occasionally offers specials like carnitas, shrimp, and birria. All tacos are gluten-free. The restaurant does not take reservations, and there is usually a line at the door for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. // www.ilovelacheve.com
LA TAQUIZA FISH TACOS
Napa locals know La Taquiza Fish Tacos as the source for California style – seasoned and grilled – or Baja style – battered and fried – fish tacos. The restaurant marinates and seasons all of their taco fillings, whether seafood or meat, with what they call “Mexican sabor (taste).” Choices include carne asada, carnitas, chicken, fish, shrimp, grilled octopus, oysters, veggie, and the house specialty, Taco Taquiza – two corn tortillas with creamy potatoes and salted, fried fish, and smoky salsa. Toppings include onions, cilantro, cabbage, pico de gallo, and homemade dressings and salsas. // www.lataquizanapa.com
Tannya’s Taqueria – named for the restauranteur’s daughter Tanya, but with an additional letter “N” to differentiate it from other similarly named restaurants – is another longtime locals’ favorite. The restaurant recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, having survived the pandemic due to its pickup window service and loyal following. Aurelio Fernandez launched the restaurant with his passion and respect for Mexican cuisine and culture: “La cocina (the kitchen), is where family happens, it is the sacred place in which tradition and passion are passed from one generation to the next.” Second-generation sons Aurelio, Jr. and Edgar now manage the day-to-day operations. The menu consists of family-favorite dishes, like tacos, soft shell or hard shell, with fillings like carnitas, al pastor, chile verde (pork or chicken), spicy mole (chicken), chicken (fajita style), carne asada, shredded beef, lengua, tripa, fish, and veggie, all topped with onions, cilantro, and radishes. Everything is made daily in small batches, so when they sell out, they’re out until the following day. // www.tannyastaqueria.com
Taqueria Maria – named for the Virgin Mary as well as chef-owner David Reynoso’s mother – opened during the economic recession in 2009. Originally from a town near Guadalajara, Mexico, Reynoso came to the United States and began his career working at a restaurant in East Los Angeles for five years. He has many family members in the culinary industry, so when a cousin in American Canyon told him about a restaurant opportunity in Napa, he and his brothers decided to take a chance despite the economic downturn. Reynoso’s menu consists of “authentic Mexican dishes with a southwestern flair,” and his tacos are outstanding and satisfying. Options include carne asada, carnitas, pollo, pastor, chorizo, pollo asado, shredded and ground beef, lengua, cabeza, seafood (fish and shrimp), and veggie. One can purchase them ala carte, in combinations, or in meal platters with sides of rice and beans. One of Reynoso’s cocktails is the perfect accompaniment, especially the spicy margarita or bloody Maria, both made with the award-winning 21 Seeds Cucumber Jalapeño Tequila. // www.taqueriamaria.com