Taco Town – Adios y buen provecho!
Six months ago we set out to help you discover the best, most authentic Mexican food in Salem and Keizer. Having written about a dozen places that meet our high standards of quality and authenticity, we end our quest, at least for now.
We are two retired state employees. We both worked at the Oregon State Library for many years. Jim retired as the director and Arturo worked in the information systems unit. Arturo was born in Cuernavaca, Mexico and grew up in Mexico City before relocating with his family to Salem when he was a teenager. He has lived in Salem since 1979. Jim was raised in Texas and has traveled extensively in Mexico since the 1970s. He has lived in Salem since 1986.
For about the last 10 years we have been thrilled to see a number of authentic Mexican taquerias open in Salem, catering mostly to Salem’s growing Latino population. Before then we were never too happy with the Mexican food choices in Salem that are frankly dumbed down to cater to gringo tastes. If you’ve traveled much in Mexico you know that you never get chips and salsa when you sit down to eat, and fajitas, nachos and burritos and other dishes common here are unheard of. If you like that food, that’s fine. But it’s not real Mexican food. It’s Mexican-American food.
As we patronized the new taquerias that were opening up in the past decade, we couldn’t help but notice that we seldom saw gringos eating there. This is not hard to understand. Most of the menus were in Spanish and had lots of unfamiliar dishes. There may not be an English speaker at the counter when you place your order (though this is really pretty uncommon). It may just be fear of the unknown. Several of these places are called “bakeries” or “markets” which probably causes some confusion and lack of awareness about the fact that they are also taquerias.
So what we have tried to do with our Taco Town columns is to humanize and demystify these dozen places that have the best authentic Mexican food in Salem. We’ve suggested the best things to order. At every place we have found dishes that you will find nowhere else in Salem.
Just as the U.S. has different dishes that originate from different regions of the country, authentic Mexican food varies greatly, and can be identified with various states and localities. The families that operate the places we have featured are proud of their origins and are trying to preserve the food culture of their homelands. Just as many of the Mexicans in Salem seem to come from the state of Michoacan in western central Mexico, most of the owners of the taquerias we featured told us that their food is inspired by their roots in that state. But we also found food inspired by the southern state of Oaxaca, the western state of Guererro, and the cities of Guanajuato and Mexico City.
Authentic Mexican food is very labor-intensive. And what is true of all these eating places is that their food is lovingly made from scratch. Nearly all these places offer handmade corn tortillas for their tacos. Several have tamales that take many hours, if not days, to prepare. The pork carnitas, featured at several of these places, cannot be made properly without many hours of cooking. Most of these places offer a variety of salsas that are carefully made from fresh and dried chilis, tomatillos, tomatoes and other fresh ingredients. The variety of spices that goes into these dishes is amazing. Several places bake their own bread for their tortas. And the cakes that are available at a couple of the places we feature are works of art. So not only is this food good, and good for you, it’s also a real bargain considering the time and effort that goes into it.
If you haven’t begun to try the places we have written about, we hope you will do so soon. Here is a handy list that you can clip out and put on your refrigerator. If you visit all twelve places and order what we suggest, you will be well-educated in authentic Mexican food. The families that run these places will be glad to see you and will welcome you back to their establishments again and again.
No other city in Oregon has the quality and variety of authentic Mexican food that Salem has. Take advantage of that fact, and be proud you live in Oregon’s Taco Town.
You can read the original series on-line here on this website
Taqueria Los Panditas, 3892 State St.
Another Mexico City-inspired eatery featuring the only authentic taquitos al pastor in town, cooked on a trompa, a vertical rotisserie. Best thing to order: Taquitos al pastor
Los Temos Taqueria, 7000 Portland Rd. NE
It’s worth the drive just north of town to get the best birria de chivo (stewed goat meat) in town. Mexican food doesn’t get any more authentic and delicious than this. Best thing to order: Birria de chivo combinacion
Tacos del Sur, 1970 Lancaster Dr. NE
Mexico City-style food including all the taqueria standards plus the amazing spicy pambazo torta that feeds two. Best thing to order: Pambazo
Chula Vista Taqueria, 135 Lancaster Dr. NE
Guanajuato-inspired food with a great selection of taqueria standards served with delicious, complimentary frijoles de olla. Their made to order meatball soup may be the best bowl in town. Best thing to order: Sopa de albondigas
Mercado San Francisco, 1584 Lancaster Dr. NE
Another Michoacan-inspired market and taqueria with the best torta ahogada in town — a pork sandwich soaked in a spicy chili sauce that you eat with knife and fork or with your hands if you want to be macho. Best thing to order: Torta ahogada
Azteca Bakery, 2831 Lancaster Dr. NE
A taste of Oaxaca right here in Salem with a huge menu including many interesting Oaxacan dishes you will find no where else. Largest selection of tortas in town on telera bread they bake fresh right here. Best thing to order: Molotes, tamales en hoja de plantano
Salvador’s Bakery, 3790 Silverton Rd.
The Larios family is a pioneer of authentic Mexican food in Salem and the founders’ three daughters are carrying on the tradition of Michoacan-inspired food, including a delicious tres leches cake and the best selection of tacos and homemade salsas in town.
Best thing to order: Taco de chicharron con carne, tres leches cake
El Torito Meat Market, 2158 Lancaster Dr.
This place has it all, including a weekday lunch buffet, but is notable for having the best hardwood charcoal smoked chickens in town on the weekends to eat here or take home. Best thing to order: Pollo asado (Friday-Sunday only)
El Ranchero Market, 2615 Lancaster Dr. NE
A great selection of Michoacan-inspired foods all made from scratch, including some great desserts like pay de queso (Mexican cheese cake). Open early for breakfast.
Best thing to order: Alambre Ranchero
Plaza Morelia, 3391 River Rd, Keizer
If you live in Keizer or North Salem you are in luck, because this place has wonderful Michoacan-inspired food, and bargain priced Mexican beer, with an even larger selection of meats (grilled chicken, lamb) on the weekends.
Best thing to order: Carnitas combinacion
Junior’s Taqueria, 1705 Winter St.
A pioneering taqueria with food as good as you would find on the Plaza Grande in Patzcuaro, Michoacan. Best thing to order: Enchiladas de la plaza
La Fondita, 3330 Center St.
The only place in town that features Guererro-style food, lovingly made from scratch, including the unbelievably good mixiotes (chicken and goat) and the best chicken mole in town. Best thing to order: Mixiote de pollo