The Bay Area’s recent quesabirria obsession has shined a spotlight on the food of Tijuana, which previously was not a regional cuisine much on the radar of local taco lovers. And the arrival of Tacos El Tucán, a new taqueria that opened in Richmond three weeks ago, is evidence that the Mexican border city has a lot more to offer than just beef birria. Specializing in Tijuana-style tacos, the restaurant has taken over the former Pup Hut at 12505 San Pablo Avenue — a prominent spot in part because of the building’s distinctive, steeply slanted, rooftop and retro design. (It has no connection to another taqueria called El Tucan, located on the same block, that was popular before it closed more than 10 years ago.)
Immediately upon opening, El Tucán was besieged by lines that outmatch even the busiest of Richmond’s many top-notch taquerias — a level of enthusiasm owner Alfredo Padilla says he didn’t fully anticipate. But just as Tijuana-style tacos have become a staple in LA, so it seems that East Bay diners have acquired a taste for the stuff. The Tijuana style has a few defining characteristics, Padilla says — handmade tortillas; meats that are grilled over fire; and the fact that every taco comes con todo by default, topped with onion, cilantro, and, crucially, a big dollop of guacamole.
Despite Richmond’s wealth of great tacos, Padilla says, all three of those things are relatively hard to find in the city. The fact that the restaurant is grilling whole steaks over fire makes a particularly big difference: The carne asada might be the best in its class, at least in the East Bay.
Because of the emphasis on grilling, El Tucán doesn’t offer the usual slate of meats that customers would find at other taquerias — there are no carnitas or lengua or cabeza, though the taqueros do cook whole links of chorizo on the grill. The restaurant also serves pork adobada, the Tijuana style of al pastor, slicing the meat directly off of the trompo, or vertical spit. The meat has the redder hue that’s typical of adobada in Tijuana and other parts of northern Mexico, Padilla explains.
For a modest upcharge, all of the meats are also available in a quesataco (i.e., cheese-topped taco) format. El Tucán’s head taquero, Daniel Ríos, modeled his version after one he’d tried at a popular taqueria in Tijuana. Instead of melted cheese, the tortillas are topped with with a thin layer of brown crispy cheese — an effect the taqueros achieve by briefly putting the tortillas on the griddle, cheese side down. The restaurant is also one of the few places in the East Bay where you can get mulitas, which Padilla describes as a kind of “sandwich,” made with melted cheese and an additional tortilla on top. Also available: a take on LA-style carne asada fries.
The restaurant is fairly tiny at 400-square-feet, with seats for 18 diners, plus a handful of additional tables outside — and, again, the place always seems to be packed. The tacos are good enough, though, especially when the meat is still hot off the grill, that customers would be wise to grab a seat and eat them right away.
As for the name of the restaurant and the jaunty, colorful bird that serves as its logo, Padilla explains that he’s a big fan of the band Los Tucanes de Tijuana. “Tijuana and Tucán just go together,” he says.
For now, Tacos El Tucán is open Tuesday to Saturday from noon to 8 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. Eventually it plans to extend its hours.