It's a funny thing driving 30 miles for a two-buck taco, but then again, once you've had a taste of the real thing, there's no going back. That's been the case for a few years now as fans of authentic Mexican street tacos have been making regular pilgrimages to a 10-seat cantina in faraway Painesville.
That urge seems only to increase with each passing Mexican restaurant opening in Cleveland. With hopes held high that new restaurants like Tres Potrillos in Beachwood or Señor Tequila at Shaker Square will somehow plug the gaping hole for authentic Mexican food in the area, diners are left, once again, Google-mapping their way hither and fro.
It was an Instagram pic that first alerted me to the taco bliss that awaits diehard fans at La Mexicana grocery store in Painesville. If seeing is believing, then that hazy Nashville-filtered taco pic a year back made a believer out of me. I've since returned, nervous that things might have changed only to discover that time and quality stand still at El Señor's, as the tiny taqueria is called.
Not that one needs a reason other than kick-ass tacos to drive 30 miles, but this joint offers a boatload of them. For starters, the wee cantina is located in a fabulous Mexicana grocery that stocks everything from whole dried chiles and fresh queso to wooden tortilla presses and Mexican candy. A butcher counter in the rear sells meaty chicharones, bulk chorizo and ready-to-cook al pastor.
To get to El Señor's, you enter the grocery and take a hard right. A large window is all that separates the grocery and the restaurant, offering views for both shoppers and diners. Guests place their order at the small counter, which is directly in front of the small open kitchen, and take their seat in the small "dining room" outfitted with two counters and one lone table. All told there are 11 seats. Of course, many people simply order their food to go. Drinks, like Jarritos, are self-serve from the cooler (bottle openers are scattered around the room).
You've driven all the way here for the tacos, so you might as well order one of each. Lengua (beef tongue), buche (pork stomach), chorizo (Mexican sausage), carne asada (beef) and pastor (pork) all cost $1.75 each. They come Mexican-style, which is to say all but naked. In place of cold heaps of lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream and guacamole, you get a few scoops of hot filling atop of a pair of warm, fragrant, griddle-fried corn tortillas. Diners customize their tacos with fresh-squeezed lime, chopped cilantro and diced white onion. What sets these tacos apart from the rest are the pitch-perfect salsas, ranging from fiery salsa verde to incendiary salsa taqueria. There are about four or five containers filled with salsas of various hues and thicknesses.
Hold the "food biting you back" jokes and get the tongue. The tender chopped meat is beefy, fatty and juicy, with dark and crispy bits along the edges from the flat-top grill. Fire engine-red ground chorizo also is deliciously spiced and flavorful.
All the above fillings plus a number of other combinations are available in quesadillas, as well. They are good, but tend to be overstuffed and gooey with cheese. They cost $2.50 or $3.50 depending on what you order. Here's a tip: For an extra buck or two you can swap the corn or flour tortilla for a thick, housemade masa tortilla that is a vast improvement. Burritos ($6.50) here are huge, with an oversize flour tortilla stuffed to stretching with any of the above toppings plus rice, beans and cheese. Again, they're tasty, but I prefer to save room for the tacos.
If you come on a Saturday or Sunday, you will likely spot a massive stock pot just inside the grocery store entrance. Grab a plastic bag, pick up the tongs, lift the lid and stuff about a half dozen of those corn husk-wrapped tamales into the bag. If you haven't already purchased salsa to go from the guys at El Señor's, do so before paying up front and leaving. Congratulations – you now have lunch for tomorrow.
Addendum: La Plaza Supermarket (13609 Lakewood Hts. Blvd., 216-476-8000) in Lakewood offers a similar experience to that of El Señor's without the 30-mile drive. This amazing Mexican grocery used to sell tacos on the weekends from a small taco cart out front. It has since begun selling them every day from the rear butcher counter, made to order and served unceremoniously in paper baskets. A small standup counter with salsas and condiments is available for those who would rather not get onions and sauce all over their car.