In case you have trouble finding the Tijuana-style taco stands in the East Bay, just roll down your windows and drive toward the smoky-sweet scent of mesquite-grilled carne asada. If you still can’t tell if you’re in the right spot, the lines snaking around the corner should be a dead giveaway. Over the past two years, Tijuana-style tacos have been one of most sought-after and Instagrammed taco styles in the Bay Area, with Tacos Mi Reynita, La Parilla Loca, and most recently, El Asadero Poblano leading the charge.
Yes, they all share the hallmarks of the provincial style: flame-grilled meats, freshly pressed corn tortillas, and a huge dollop of guacamole, all snugly wrapped in a thin, yellow square of paper. Yes, they’re all located within one square mile of each other in deep East Oakland. But there’s one similarity that feels more surprising: none of the taqueros behind the three businesses come from Tijuana. Instead, nearly all of them come from Puebla, a Mexican state more than 1,800 miles southeast of Baja California.
Poblano taqueros working at or owning Tijuana-style taquerias in California is an unspoken tradition, one that was set into motion a decade ago, as taqueros from Izucar de Matamoros, Puebla helped to introduce the Tijuaneses style and all its grilled meat glory to Los Angeles. Stands like Tire Shop Taqueria and Tacos Los Poblanos #1 were among the first to serve this style to Angelenos to rave reviews. In the years that followed, Tijuana-style taquerias — and the Poblano taqueros behind them — exploded onto the scene in LA, garnering even more popularity thanks to the Instagram-fueled rise of birria de res and quesabirria tacos.
But these taqueria owners didn’t move northwards to the Bay Area set up outposts of LA favorites. The style migrated to the Bay Area organically. Tacos El Tucan, one of the first Tijuana-style spots in the Bay Area, popped up in Richmond in 2019. Viral sensation El Garage, which jumpstarted the quesabirria craze in the Bay opened up a brick-and-mortar in 2020. But the three new stands boasting this signature al carbon style and juicy trompos of adobada seemed to open by chance — or by fate if you’re a taco romantic.
For 22-year-old María Belén Ponce Villa, whose family owns Tacos Mi Reynita, the decision to start the business came from a desire to start fresh. More than a decade ago, she and her family moved to Oakland from San Miguel Atlapulco, a small town in Puebla with a population hovering around 1,400. Her mother, Florencia Villa Ayala, worked as a janitor at Safeway for eight years before she decided to get into the food industry.
“We didn’t know what food to make. Before we opened Tacos Mi Reynita, we were selling tamales,” Ponce Villa says. “My mothers’ brother told us we should be selling [Tijuana-style] tacos like the ones in LA with handmade tortillas and grilled meat. That’s how we decided to do these tacos. It was something different from what is already here in the Bay Area.”
Whereas Tacos Mi Reynita seized the opportunity to fill a hole in the market, La Parilla Loca opened out of necessity. After their roofing company nearly went under during the pandemic, Jacobo Villa and Mariana Aguirre, a husband and wife from Puebla and Jalisco, respectively, created their deep East Oakland stand after receiving encouragement from an LA-based friend in the food industry. Despite their lack of experience in “street food vending,” her husband felt reassured they could pull this off.
“This was easier,” Aguirre says, referring to making Tijuana-style tacos instead of other regional versions. “I’m from Jalisco. In Jalisco, it’s more like carnitas and pozole and stuff like that. But this was my husband’s idea. He comes from the same town as Florencia [from Tacos Mi Reynita], and a lot of people who sell Tijuana-style are from this same hometown in Puebla.”
While the couple still feels like they’re learning the ropes, three of the four of their taqueros (all of whom are from Puebla and are Villa’s friends or family) honed their craft in the border town. They picked up extra tips and tricks from cohorts in LA, learning to assemble tacos with the mesmerizing speed for which Tijuana-based taqueros are known. “Going fast, it’s all about practice,” Aguirre says. “What they started doing now is called ‘the flying salsa.’ It’s like a competition about who can go faster than the other, but not in a bad way.”
This impressive quick-wristed act — the taquero flicks the salsa into the air and effortlessly catches it on the taco — is also practiced at the newest addition to the Tijuana-style taqueria family, El Asadero Poblano. While honoring the style’s speed, techniques, and taste certainly matters to owners Humberto Villa and Flor Cabrera, the origin story behind this proud Poblano-owned taqueria and its taqueros feels more sentimental.
“We were inspired by this beautiful way of cooking in Tijuana,” he says. “As we immigrated from Puebla up to the U.S., some of us were able to cross over quickly. Some of my guys stayed working in Tijuana learning their special style of cooking. [My wife and I] have suffered and fought to create this business. Learning the Tijuana style…and knowing that so many people love this style is what inspired me to start my own business here [in Oakland].”
To suggest there’s one reason that points to why Poblano taqueros are drawn to the Tijuana style would be oversimplifing at best. But there is a mythic quality to the stories. Call it necessity, destiny, or just coincidence, but the long connection between the two Mexican regions is undeniable — and it’s certainly alive and well in the East Bay. Humberto Villa, who spoke about the reason he named his taqueria El Asadero Poblano, sums it up as a perfect matter of fact: “Because we’re from Puebla…and we cook the Tijuana style. Yeah.”