Clack-clack-clack. Sizzle-sizzle-sizzle. As soon as I stepped into Navarro’s Taqueria, I heard the familiar and comforting noise of a metal spade pushing and scraping seasoned bits of fried meat across a hot griddle. I smelled the aroma, too, as it wafted through the room. Both triggered a Pavlovian response. My senses told me that I’m going to eat tacos—lots of them—and very soon. But as I ordered my food, I noticed that what I heard and smelled couldn’t have been coming from the cook I saw in the kitchen behind the cashier. That gent, at this point, was only heating a few tortillas on his cooktop.
It wasn’t until I rounded the corner and looked on the other side of the walled-off kitchen that I found the second taquero. He operated a portable taco cart, the kind that could be rolled onto the back of a truck. The taquería’s Yelp page says Navarro’s catered parties prior to being a brick-and-mortar in Whittier and before moving here, so it would be a good guess that Navarro’s began as a street cart, as good taco shops often do.
Squeezed between a gas station and an auto mechanic, the squat shack that Navarro’s now occupies used to be a money-transfer office at which you could also refill water jugs. Before that, it was another taco stand. But if you haven’t been in the neighborhood in a decade, you would swear it’s always been a taco shop—this taco shop. And even though Navarro’s is only a few months old, it already has the hallmarks of a tried-and-true Santa Ana taquería. Horchata and jamaica gurgle in a circulating beverage dispenser. If you want a Jarritos or Mexican Coke, you pay the cashier and grab the bottle yourself from a fridge next to the salsa bar. No one tells you where the bottle opener is, but you know by instinct it’s by the cash register. And when you order taquitos, they come in groups of three and buried under so much lettuce it counts as a salad.
Navarro’s, however, does have one thing in common with all latter-day taco stands: birria, the current trend in new taquerías. And when I tried the familiar three tacos de birria combo here—which includes the consommé in a Styrofoam cup—I noticed that the cook folded the special orange tortilla around the stewed beef on the griddle, almost sealing it in. But Navarro’s birria tacos are a different species than those served at La Super Birria, the most recent specialist to open in the past year; the meat is leaner here, and the consommé doesn’t taste so much like meat drippings as it does a highly seasoned herbal tea.
While the taquero in the kitchen oversees the birria tacos, the taquero at the cart makes the regular tacos. All sorts of meats, from asada to al pastor, crisp slowly in the perimeter of his shallow circular pan, which resembles a hubcap. The bulge in the middle is a comal on which tortillas could be warmed. But this taquero has another section of the cart he uses for that—a heating platform with a series of holes that emit steam from below. If you ran into this cart on the street at night, you wouldn’t be able to resist. With everything on display—meat, tortilla, onions and cilantro—it promises instant taco gratification.
At the direction of the cashier, the cart taquero immediately got to work on my order. It didn’t take long: In one fluid motion, he took a pair of tortillas and placed them atop a steaming hill of asada, then pinched the tortillas as though they were tongs to grab wads of meat and flipped them over. My tacos were assembled faster than I could say, “Gracias.”
I took my plate to the patio. Cars zoomed by on the busy street, but I was shaded from the sun by a tarp and sat behind a fence bordered by plants that flapped in the autumn breeze. I smothered a taco with salsa, picked it up, cocked my head to the side and bit. My teeth sank into the steamed softness of the tortilla. My eyes rolled to the back of my head. The asada was crisp, a little burnt on the edges—just how I like it. The al pastor was even crispier, loaded with spices and achiote. On all the tacos, the red onions were chopped so finely they were almost minced. As I chewed, I did some math. Navarro’s charges $1.32 per taco; I could get a third, be full and still fall below the $5 mark. And it’s wasn’t even Taco Tuesday.
Navarro’s Taqueria, 1535 S. Standard Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 486-1068. Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Tacos start at $1.32. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.