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Rival chefs join up for new Santa Rosa food truck

Tacos Tijuana

Where: 420 First St., Santa Rosa

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Inexpensive - moderate, entrees $4.99-$15.99

Hours: 3 - 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 3 - 10 p.m. Friday, 2 - 10 p.m. Saturday and 2 - 8 p.m. Sunday

Contact: 707-216-7116, facebook.com/TijuanaTacoTruck

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Inexpensive - moderate, entrees $4.99 - $15.99

Summary: An unassuming trailer truck sends out stunning Oaxacan, Michoacan and Mexico City specialties.

Décor: Inside, the brewpub has stacked barrels draped with string lights and a stage with murals. If Cosmo the cat is hanging out on the arcade games, he loves having his photo taken.

Chef Miguel Canseco likes to claim he was the first to introduce Sonoma County to quesabirria tacos, the now hugely popular creation of birria beef and cheese folded into a fried tortilla with consommé for dipping. They’re bestsellers at his Taqueria El Paisa in Rohnert Park and his Tacos El Paisa food truck in the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa.

But Chef José Rodriguez likes to say that no, he was the first to offer quesabirria at his El Fogón Taqueria in Rohnert Park. Customers love his extra-cheesy version (also available as a burrito).

Either way, both say their quesabirria is hands down the best. That’s created a semi-playful competition between them for several years now, as is well-known among their families and friends.

So, when the two men joined forces a few months ago to launch Tacos Tijuana, it raised some eyebrows. Whose quesabirria would reign supreme at the hybrid trailer truck and tiny kitchen in Santa Rosa?

Canseco and Rodriguez compromised, according to their business partner and marketing director Uriel Brena, and somehow the Tacos Tijuana quesabirria is even better.

“I feel like none of us could have done this project alone, even though suddenly everyone was saying, 'Who has the best birria?'" Brena said. “Sometimes you think the guy next door is taking away your business, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like him. They’re friends, so they put their recipes together and made it even better.”

Adding to the collaboration is the description of these tasty street treats. At Tacos Tijuana, the menu describes their version as “a shotgun marriage of a quesadilla and a birria taco; the quesabirria featured red-stained tortillas, piles of shredded meat and an ample amount of melted cheese.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same description as at El Fogón. Yet the Tacos Tijuana head cook, Edwin Hernandez Garcia, used to work at El Paisa. The mystery deepens.

I'll just say this — I like the quesabirria at El Paisa and El Fogón, but it’s Tacos Tijuana for the win. They are simply lavish with succulent beef braised with guajillo and ancho peppers, stuffed with lots of creamy cheese spurting from the tortilla and pan-fried until crisp in a dollop of golden brown fat from the birria pot. You’ll dunk the four tacos in the salty consommé and ferociously devour every bite ($15.99).

Many cities, flavors

Tucked in the beer garden behind Shady Oak Barrel House next to Santa Rosa Plaza, Tacos Tijuana is a fascinating, uniquely Mexican food operation.

Beyond that mouthwatering quesabirria, it offers specialty dishes from Oaxaca, Michoacán, Mexico City and, of course, Tijuana. It also features an extensive menu of vegan and vegetarian options, brimming with such luscious, full flavors that you’ll never miss the meat or dairy.

The Oaxaca, Michoacán and Mexico City connections are an homage to the backgrounds of the chefs and Brena. The Tijuana link comes because, after the trio started sharing stories, they discovered they had all crossed into the United States at the city's border and had a taste for the food there.

“One day, we were hanging out and realized we had all started in the same place in search of the American dream,” Brena said. “The night we decided to put this project together, we kept talking about Tijuana. I don’t know if it’s because we were so very poor at the time and we were so hungry — physically, and for wishes of a better life — but the food we had in there was the best we’ve ever had in our lives.”

The grand opening party last month set the tone for how special Tacos Tijuana is in the community. Rodriguez once owned a catering and event supplies company, so guests were greeted with a fantastic bounce house designed like a cowboy ranch, complete with inflatable steer skulls, log walls, a bucking bronco backdrop and a faux mechanical bull the kids could ride on.

Mariachis serenaded with soaring melodies and blaring trumpets. Members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce mingled with guests sipping cerveza, and Cosmo, the black cat, viewed the crowd from his perch on a Game of Thrones arcade machine in the Shady Oak bar. Some 400 people had RSVP’d, and many lined up at the trailer to buy signature dishes like Garcia’s famous al pastor, slow-roasted on vertical trompo rotisserie.

This is some of the best pastor I’ve ever enjoyed. Rust-tinged from its sweet-spicy marinade of pineapple juice, chiles, oregano, achiote and cumin, the tender meat is piled in double corn tortillas with grilled pineapple chunks, cilantro, minced white onion and an unusual addition of roasted potato ($2.99).

In Mexico City, tacos come with slices of cucumber inside, Brena said. In Tijuana, cooks put in potatoes. In his kitchen, Garcia boils potatoes, chops them into chunks, then grills them with a bit of oil and the moderately spicy guajillo sauce used for the birria. It adds a layer of umami to the already-perfect meat.

In Tijuana, many taco vendors prefer flour tortillas, so that’s what this team uses for its Santana taco. The hefty griddled creation arrives loaded with meat of our choice, whole black or refried beans, pico de gallo, thick sour cream, salsa and lime ($6.99). I don’t know what seasoning the chef uses for the carne asada, but it is magical — so salty and savory I pick every last bit that spills from the tortilla, not shy to lick my fingers.

Standards, plus vegarian

With the food served on paper-lined rattan trays and eaten at picnic tables, this could be considered fast food. But pay attention — a mushroom taco is stocked with huitlacoche, a prized delicacy imported from Mexico City, also known as corn smut.

You might think of it as an edible petri dish, as the smut occurs when a weird fungus infects corn, turning the ear blue-black. Nevertheless, it’s quite delicious (and most of us like dessert wine, which is “noble rot” of fungus-infected grapes, so there you go). The moist, soft kernels taste sweet and woodsy, akin to mushrooms, and here are dressed up with mozzarella, refried beans, pico de gallo, sour cream and salsa ($6.99). Add a large side of made-to-order guacamole studded with diced jalapeños ($14.99), and it’s a wonderful meal.

Go for the cabeza, too. It’s the succulent, supple, fatty meat from a roasted cow head, braised, steamed, then shredded for melt-in-your-mouth texture. Santa Rosa City Council Member Jack Tibbetts is a close friend of Brena and likes the dish so much he has his own burrito on the menu, the Compa Jack ($12.99). Brena said the tribute came about because Tibbetts often requests “uno burrito cabeza, por favor” after an evening of good friends and beer.

You can get some of the usual dishes here, and they’re all good — super burritos ($14.99), Baja shrimp or fish tacos with mango salsa ($4.99) and tortas ($10.99). But explore vegetarian specialties like the Me Encantas taco, a marvelous mix of cheese-stuffed Anaheim peppers, avocado, sour cream, cilantro, onions and salsa on a corn tortilla ($5.99).

And get a quesadilla plump with tangy manchego cheese and delicate zucchini blossoms, rounded out with avocado, lettuce and crema ($11.99). Pair it with a beer from the bar or homemade tepache, an intriguing, earthy drink of fermented pineapple peel, fruit, brown sugar and agua fresca ($3).

Give the ChoriVegan nachos a shot, too. There’s a lot of good flavor going on, with the organic yellow corn chips, black beans, vegan chorizo, vegan mozzarella cheese, bell peppers, avocado, vegan sour cream, diced green onions, diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro and green salsa swirled with avocado ($14.99).

“It’s been fun to see things evolve,” Brena said. “Miguel and José joined up because they were both having a hard time in the pandemic, and they got to know each other better. So now they are pulling together, shoulder to shoulder, to make something original for Sonoma County.”

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

Tacos Tijuana

Where: 420 First St., Santa Rosa

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Inexpensive - moderate, entrees $4.99-$15.99

Hours: 3 - 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 3 - 10 p.m. Friday, 2 - 10 p.m. Saturday and 2 - 8 p.m. Sunday

Contact: 707-216-7116, facebook.com/TijuanaTacoTruck

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Inexpensive - moderate, entrees $4.99 - $15.99

Summary: An unassuming trailer truck sends out stunning Oaxacan, Michoacan and Mexico City specialties.

Décor: Inside, the brewpub has stacked barrels draped with string lights and a stage with murals. If Cosmo the cat is hanging out on the arcade games, he loves having his photo taken.

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