The corner of 300 West and 900 South is as close as I’ll get to Mexico this summer. It’s not exactly where I’d planned to spend the past week: I thought I’d be in Oaxaca. But the ever-vigilant boys at Homeland Security put the kibosh on that. Paint me paranoid, but I can’t help but think that calling the president of the U.S.A. a braggart, a buffoon, bully and numbnuts in print might have gotten me and my travel companion in the soup insofar as traveling abroad'or at least traveling to Mexico'is concerned.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Getting into Mexico is no problem. Getting out of Mexico and back to the land of the free'that’s a problem. I won’t go into the grizzly details of airport security and expired passports here, but let’s just say that the days of heading south of the border with nothing more than a driver license, a kilo of Pepto-Bismol and a stack of Kerouac are long gone. But hey, when the “jefe” gives you “limones,” you turn them into “limonada,” right? So if I can’t go to Mexico proper, I’ll revert to Plan B: Find a little pocket of authentic Mexico right here at home. Which is how I wound up at the corner of 300 West and 900 South.
Although they pretty much share the same parking lot, Trails and Taqueria Lolita are worlds apart. There’s a wholesomeness at Lolita’s that you just don’t find in most topless bars. Then again, the “picante” fire of “camarones del Diablo” (the Devil’s shrimp) at Taqueria Lolita comes pretty damned close to the sort of sensory stimulation you might be in for watching Trails’ girls gyrate. And both places have a Dadaist quality to them that would take a New York Review of Books-size article to really explicate. But as my Laguna Beach surfer dude friend would say about Trails and Taqueria Lolita, “It’s all â€˜bueno.’”
You won’t mistake Taqueria Lolita for, let’s say, the Mayan; it’s no ethnic theme park. The black velvet paintings of American Indians on the wall aren’t kitsch. I think they are actually homage to the natives of North America from the folks who emigrated from Cuernavaca, Mexico, to make their home here in Salt Lake City.
The dÃ©cor at Taqueria Lolita'as with so many small, independently owned restaurants'is probably more a function of what’s affordable than what’s available. One of the main design features is an impossible-to-miss string of Corona beer banners reading “It’s Time to Lime.” Colorful photo-enhanced menus take up most of one lemon-colored wall; Christmas lights and festive orange and lime tones help to create an upbeat, but authentically Mexican feel. Just don’t mistake upbeat for upscale'that it isn’t.
Chances are good that when you visit Taqueria Lolita, you’ll be greeted by the owner, Jesus Sanchez, with a friendly, “Hola amigo” or “Hola amiga.” If he’s not at the restaurant, you’ll be just as happy to find yourself in the capable hands of a friendly, younger Cuernavaca transplant named Juliana. She doesn’t speak loads of English, but she doesn’t mind letting you practice your Spanish. Jesus, on the other hand, is very fluent in English, but he allows me to butcher his native language as well.
Yet as much as I like the people who work at Taqueria Lolita, it’s the food that keeps me coming back. Already disappointed that I wasn’t sitting at El Refectoria in Oaxaca, I decided the other night to order chicken with “mole Rojas” at Lolita, with the assumption that I’d just be dragged down into a deeper depression by the inferiority in comparison to the “real thing.” After a few bites of the ultra-tender chicken breast meat draped with an incredibly rich, complex and authentic-tasting dark chile mole sauce, I remember victoriously proclaiming to my dining companion, “This is as good as any mole I’ve ever eaten in Oaxaca!” What a wonderful surprise, especially since Taqueria Lolita isn’t even particularly known for its moles.
But despite the name, Lolita isn’t a typical taqueria either. There is the standard selection of tacos: “asada,” “pastor,” “lengua,” “polloâ€ and “carnitas,” as well as the less standard “cabeza.” And the tacos are just fine, if no better really than those at the Tacos La Reyna restaurant just around the corner from Taqueria Lolita (see Food Matters).
At Lolita, the focus is really more on substantial dishes like the aforementioned “mole en pollo,” “bistec encebolladoâ€ (grilled steak smothered with caramelized onions), “birriaâ€ (tender goat meat stewed or served shredded with rice and beans, and “mariscos” (fish and seafood dishes typical of Mexico). The “camarones del Diablo” ($9.99) was one of the spiciest things to hit my lips since I stopped eating Gerber’s stewed bananas. And it was terrific'a dozen or more medium-size shrimp bathed in an incendiary but delicious chile sauce, with rice, heavenly refried beans and fresh avocado relish on the side. But I also recommend an order of Taqueria Lolita’s yummy fresh-made guacamole ($3.99) and a bottle of Mexican beer to help put out that devil’s fire.
The next time I find myself and my partner under “house arrest,” so to speak, I won’t blink an eye or despair that I can’t venture south of the border. I’ll just pull up a seat at Taqueria Lolita and imagine that I’m miles and miles from home and right in the lap of real Mexican hospitality and flavors.