I heard, roughly three weeks ago, some gossip of a rare type, the compelling kind: a talk of tacos. A friend confided that her neighbors in Richmond were abuzz with anticipation for Tacos El Tucán, which opened Nov. 13 on an evolving stretch of San Pablo Avenue, not far from Catahoula Coffee Company and the forthcoming Factory Bar. El Tucán sits aside its prominent red-and-white sign that advertises “Tijuana-style tacos,” and has seized an auspicious opening moment, amidst a quesabirria trend that, likewise, originated in Northern Mexico, pervaded Los Angeles and has seized the Bay Area.
But El Tucán’s specialty, the quesataco, which is relatively scarce in the Bay Area, diverges from quesabirria in a key way: it lobs away the birria, the beef-based stew that you’d typically find inside the taco, and focuses on the dish’s other mainstay: queso. At El Tucán, this cheese is Monterey Jack and it’s crisped on a flat top, yielding something that is rich and crunchy and slightly sweet. Apart from dairy, quesatacos and quesabirria share several other traits: catchy portmanteaus (one), a sprinkling of onions and cilantro (two), and a generous dab of guacamole that is more liquid than viscous when it comes to consistency (three).
Quesatacos aside, El Tucán offers another dish that is less common in these parts: the mulita, which features the aforementioned accoutrements atop meat or vegetables nestled sandwich-like between two handmade corn tortillas. The mulita therefore presents a double dose of toasted masa, and its melted cheese binds with each tortilla to form a righteously indulgent outer layer.
Whether it is novelty or casein’s addictive properties, El Tucán’s appeal has not been lost on guests, which seem to assemble in hordes that spill from the building (that previously belonged to a hotdog shop called Pup Hut for 40-plus years, according to The Richmond Standard). On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the line stretched long from noon until about 2 p.m., and dwindled after that. Fortunately, this past Sunday, rain kept a mid-afternoon crowd small enough to fit inside, where diners will find two mid-sized tables as well as seating along several countertops.
While you wait, there are distractions: for instance, a spicy curtido may be judiciously sampled from a self-serve salsa station. It is a wickedly crunchy blend of marinated cucumbers, radishes and red onions, dotted with jalapeño slices and citrus. It comes complimentary, as do the other salsas on display, of which a bright, roasted tomato version of middling heat may grab your attention. Though tortilla chips come gratis only when you order a burrito (which in size, approximates a newborn or a small missile; choose your analogy), you may purchase a bag separately ($2) to enjoy with your salsa.
Patience, they say, is a virtue, and here your reward comes atop black-and-white checkered paper that signals victory like a flag at the end of a NASCAR race. In another way, this flag marks the beginning of a new, consumptive competition where everyone wins. Like at other taquerias, you may pick your protein from options that include pollo asado and carne asada; both are cooked on a gas grill. But the star is the adobada, or al pastor — moist and juicy and sliced in generous chunks from a trompo, the vertical rotisserie crowned by a hunk of pineapple. The pork’s reddish hue comes from a marinade of chiles, vinegar and sugar, among other ingredients in a proprietary blend that chef-taquero Daniel allows the meat to soak in for a day.
If awards indeed existed, those morsels of marinated pork, placed in a quesataco, would take first prize ($3.75). A regular taco, is of course, enjoyable ($2.75), but it doesn’t quite compare to its crisped cheese cousin. The quesataco is also well-suited to the vegetable medley, which is notably fresh and comprises zucchini, mushrooms and corn. The carne asada receives an honorary mention, particularly when stuffed into a mulita ($4.75); the beef is flavorful and of notable quality, but a bit drier than the al pastor; though that is an issue that is easily remedied with a smear of tomatillo salsa or a squirt of lime. The quesadilla ($8.75) is solid, and like the burrito, provides a noteworthy portion, served in a lightly grilled flour tortilla; still, it’s not quite as scintillating as the corn-swaddled options.
Of course, like any new establishment, there are kinks: a dish that cools as its compatriots finish cooking, a few stale chips, pollo asada that is less than exciting. But let’s be fair: it’s been just three weeks, and El Tucán is brutally busy. All told, this taqueria will likely draw crowds for a long time if they continue to fire dishes this compelling.
Tacos El Tucán is open noon-8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; noon-6 p.m., Sunday; closed Mondays.