Quick, what’s one of the main differences between the increasing number of chain restaurants in the Inland Empire and the one-of-a-kind joints with local tradition and personality? Well, there’s the food quality—but why anyone in search of a genuine dining experience choose Outback Steakhouse when they could eat at Mario’s for roughly the same price is a mystery akin to who shot JFK or why every other teen in the area has on an identical black hoodie.
No, the primary difference is location. Chains can normally be seen from the freeway, while anything worth a damn that’s been around for a while often cannot.
Zacatecas Café is nigh impossible to spot from the 91, even with Steve Austin vision; it’s located unobtrusively on University Avenue. But once you happen upon it and get a load of its old-school tradition (Zacatecas dates back to 1963), you’ll encounter some of the best Mexican grub this side of Hildago del Parral. The mood is very relaxed, with many of the familiar patrons comprised of locals—some of whom look like they were at the grand opening. Spanish radio serves up an authentic soundtrack and the colorful ceramic tiles enhance the tranquility of the dining area.
The Special Burrito plate at Zacatecas is, well, big. In appearance and sheer volume it truly is special, a smothered burrito fortified with a moat of enchilada sauce spilling over the sides. Zacatecas uses their signature ranchero sauce, which isn’t overwhelmingly hot—more warm, brown, and only moderately spicy. It’s sprinkled with Chile Colorado, boulders of meat resting on the top of the tortilla. It’s quite a spectacle—and if you’re anything like me, your immediate reaction is likely to be, what, I’m supposed to eat all this? And that’s just the outside of the damn thing.
On the inside Chile Verde with more giant slabs of pork await you, along with flavorful homemade refried beans. Once the Colorado and Verde sauces start mixing together, and the meats and beans are co-mingling, that’s when the true sloppy genius of Zacatecas reports. And, again, if you’re like me and unable to put down your fork despite the foreboding feeling of overdoing it, you’ll want to lie down directly afterwards for a nap.
Other notable dishes at Zacatecas are the Mole de Gallina, tender chicken in a sweet, tangy mole sauce and the Chicharrones con Tomatillo, which aren’t exactly your average liquor store pork rinds served up with a fine tomatillo sauce and claro, que si, rice and beans.
Much the same as with Templo Del Sol up the street, you know what you’re getting at Zacatecas—tasty Mexican fare with a some time-honored experimentation. One can quibble with a few items—for example, their chips have a marginal blandness to them—or complain about the early bird hours—they close at 8pm most nights—but it’s a comfortable dining experience that just can’t be found at El Torito.
Besides, landmarks like Zacatecas deserve a little love, as it’s one of the few pre-monotonous haunts where the local flavor is in the air.
Zacatecas Café, 2472 University Avenue, Riverside, (951)-683-3939, Sat.–Sun. 7:30am–3:00pm, Tues.–Thurs. 7:30am–8:00pm, Friday 7:30am–8:30pm, closed Monday