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EAT ON THE STREET

Uncovering Greater Sacramento’s Mexican street food.

WRITTEN BY STEPH RODRIGUEZ
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM

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The most authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine are not always tasted in full-spread dishes accompanied by rice and beans or served in a restaurant setting. Instead, the essence of traditional Mexican fare is found streetside, served near parks, in alleyways, and on the busiest corners of the city.

Street food is simple. It’s savory tacos garnished with cilantro and chopped onions and served from a small cart near Southside Park. It’s crunchy chicharrónes, fried pork rinds spiced with lime and chili sauce. It’s the comfort factor present in each bite of an elote, corn on the cob rolled in crema, chili powder, and Parmesan cheese and enjoyed on a stick.

These curbside treats, with their savory and spicy flavors, originate from some of the oldest regions in Mexico. Street food may be straightforward, but it’s served with a story and spiced with love by people who savor authenticity.

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Wrapped in tradition

When Yolanda Yanez was a little girl, her mother taught her the traditions of tamale making in Michoacán. Back in those days, tamales were made by the dozen. Now, Yanez and a small team — which includes her husband, Pedro — prep and steam between 400 and 1,000 tamales in one day.

In her family-run business, Yanez also enlists the help of her sons, Andres and Valente; her daughter, Julia; and Andres’ wife, Sandra, who all are regular faces during every farmers’ market location in the Sacramento area. The markets run from May through October, when Yolanda’s Tamales are sold in bulk.

Tamales start with masa, a corn-based dough that traditionally is made of lard, salt, and baking powder. The masa is spread onto a cornhusk before it’s filled with a variety of meats, chiles, cheeses, or vegetables. Once the tamale is assembled, it’s folded tightly and steamed until the masa is firm.

Pork, chicken, vegetable, and green-chile-and-cheese varieties grace the Yolanda’s Tamales menu, along with agua frescas, which are light, fruit-based beverages perfect for a hot day. But it’s the homemade horchata, a sweet, milk-based drink made from ground rice, cinnamon, and vanilla, that is the perfect accompaniment to cool down the palate after eating spicy tamales.

What is it about tamale making that’s kept Yanez going all these years?

“When she makes tamales for the markets, she makes it thinking that it’s for her family, and that’s why her flavors taste so authentic,” Sandra says, interpreting her mother-in-law’s words. “Even if it’s [for 1,000 people], she cooks from her heart and she has a real passion for it.”

Yolanda’s Tamales
916-256-7342 • Find it on Instagram @Yotamales

Stand open 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Tues. at the Roosevelt Park farmers’ market, 1615 9th St., Sacramento; 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Wed. at the Cesar Chavez Plaza farmers’ market, 910 I St., Sacramento; and 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Sat., at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market, 3500 5th Ave., Sacramento.

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Tastes of Mexico

When the owners of Midtown’s Cantina Alley visit the different regions of Mexico, they typically aren’t eating in restaurants. For Art Aguilar and Max Archuleta, the authentic flavors of Mexico are tasted right in the streets.

“We wanted people to realize that Mexico has many places and many different types of art, food, and culture,” Archuleta says. “Whether it’s Mexico City, Guadalajara, or Oaxaca, if you go to the street vendors, that’s where you eat the best, and we wanted to showcase street food from Mexico.”

A short stroll down Jazz Alley between 23rd and 24th streets in Midtown is met with the aromas of grilled meats, chiles, and onions. Here, elotes sell quickly, the corn tortillas are made from scratch, and the drink menu highlights mezcal, an agave-based liquor with a history that dates back more than 200 years. Its smoky and sweet flavor profile emerges in the mezcalita al pastor cocktail. From tacos to elotes and innovative takes on mezcal, this interesting alley location captures the genuine flavors of Mexico.

Midtown’s Cantina Alley
2320 Jazz Alley, Sacramento • 916-970-5588 • Cantinaalley.com

Open 3 – 10 p.m. Tues. – Thurs., 3 p.m. – 2 a.m. Fri., noon – 2 a.m. Sat., noon – 10 p.m. Sun. Closed Mon.

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Park-side eats

Every Sunday morning in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, four to five small cart vendors park outside the cathedral to feed churchgoers and passersby in the Southside Park neighborhood. Under colorful umbrellas, the carts offer an assortment of Mexican street fare, including chicharrónes — crispy, pinwheel-shaped chips topped with chili sauce and lime juice. There also are spicy and sweet mango sticks, tacos, and elotes (of course), and to drink, agua frescas and champurrado, a sweetened, chocolate-based drink thickened with masa.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
711 T St., near Southside Park

Steph Rodriguez is an award-winning freelance journalist who keeps a close eye on the food and music scene in Sacramento. She recalls walking down to the corner market every Sunday morning as a child where her tio Carlos would sell bowls of menudo, a traditional Mexican soup made with tripe, from a small food cart in her neighborhood in Shafter, Calif. With more than 10 years’ experience as a writer, she crafts stories that mirror the vast and diverse culture of the region.

Recipes

Jamaica Agua Fresca

(courtesy of the Yanez family. Makes about 15 to 18 cups)

1½ cups jamaica flowers (hibiscus)

5 quarts water

1½ cups sugar (or adjust to taste; easily replaced with sugar substitute)

Bring all water to boil over high heat in heat-resistant pot. Once water has boiled, add hibiscus flowers. Boil about 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool for about 5 minutes.

When cooled, strain all flower from liquid and pour into jug or container of choice. Add sugar and mix until you cannot see grains. Refrigerate about an hour or until completely cold. Serve over ice and enjoy!

*For a special summer treat, freeze finished agua fresca in cups with spoon (or popsicle stick) inside for a delicious homemade popsicle.

Pico de Gallo

(courtesy of the Yanez family. Serves 5)

You will need all fresh ingredients, which is why the Yanez family recommends keeping the pico de gallo in the refrigerator for only about two days.

5 almost-ripe tomatoes (if too ripe, they will become a watery mess!), diced

½ yellow onion, diced

½ bunch cilantro, finely chopped

Juice of 3 limes

½ teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon salt

Combine tomatoes, onion, and cilantro in large bowl. Pour in lime juice. Put oregano in palm of your hand and rub hands together to break apart — this creates smaller flakes that blend more easily. Add salt. Mix well. Now it’s ready to eat as a dip with chips.

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