When the waitress brought my order of four tacos at Mendez Cafe on the South Side, the plate smelled unlike tacos. It smelled like — sniff, sniff — pancakes? Syrup? For some reason I wrote “cinnamon” in my notes, but upon reflection, that observation may have been off target.
It’s hard to tell where the entrance is to Mendez Cafe. Parking spaces completely surround the building. So I missed the sign on its facade that said “Breakfast Served All Day.” This would explain why Mendez Cafe was full of activity on a Monday morning. They do breakfast — that’s what they do. Before I was served, the waitress brought a plate of huevos rancheros to the viejito sitting next to me and under framed photos of what looked like softball teams from the 80s. I almost changed my order, the dude’s plate was a vision. The egg was picture-perfect over easy — slightly browned — and like four strips of bacon that looked as crispy as bacon gets. The man sat next to the kitchen where a sign read “No microwave, no fast food. Homestyle food only.”
Another sign, on the front door, said “Cash Only.”
So it was appropriate that the first taco before me was ham and egg on flour. The most breakfast of breakfast tacos? Except here, it’s taken to another level. I’m serious, I couldn’t shake the smell of pancakes. Or was it maple syrup? When I bit into this taco, it was like a pancake taco with egg and ham. But the pancake taste wasn’t strong, but subtle. It was delicious. The flavors of the pancake and syrup were foreign in the context of a taco, but they worked. The cinnamon, in retrospect, I think I was getting from the ham. Was there pancake mix in this tortilla?
I realize this sounds confusing. Did they actually incorporate syrup or pancake mix into this taco? I have no clue. But I know those aromas and tastes were there by some measure. I didn’t imagine them.
These combination of flavors were placed in an excellent flour tortilla. Mendez Cafe’s tortillas are fluffy, soft and on the thicker side.
Perhaps more satisfying was the carne guisada. Only Mi Celayence’s version, on Fredericksburg Road, might eclipse the one at Mendez Cafe. Here, the meat is perfectly tender and seasoned. The stew has a perfect consistency — not too thick, not too watery. It had that spot-on reddish, chili powder-ish color with hints of tomato paste.
The potato con chorizo was very good. The potatoes were a little on the mushy side, but the flavors were there. And the papas were coated perfectly with the chorizo _ not an abundance, but not skimping, either.
The bean and cheese on corn was a slight misstep. The beans were very good, and they were loaded with plenty of cheese, which I prefer. But the corn tortilla was obviously store bought.
But I forgive the corn tortilla, because being inside Mendez Cafe made me feel good. Like I was in the right place. I also felt like an outsider. Like the neighborhood was in the know — it’s encompassed by houses and abuts the heavily-trafficked Quintana Road — but that the rest of S.A. isn’t. Like this place that could probably be characterized as an institution — it’s been around more than 30 years — hasn’t been ruined by some a-hole journalist. And here I am.
And cheap. I had four tacos, a water and a pack of Doublemint for less than $8.
Oh, here are my notes from when the man’s huevos rancheros arrived, and I started to drool as I waited for my tacos:
This dude’s plate just arrived and holy shit that looks good. Crispy bacon. Perfect plump egg over easy??? Potatoes that look perfect.
Mendez Cafe, 201 Bartholomew Ave., (210) 923-6603
— Worth traveling across town for
— Average S.A. taqueria. Some hits, some misses
— Mostly misses
— Benjamin Olivo
What do you think? Is there a taco I should have ordered, but didn’t? Have any taco news, issues or concerns? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.