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Taqueria Time

A plethora of Mexican-style fast food outlets tantalize locals.

Lucky for us, Santa Cruz is full of taquerias, some only blocks apart.

Just take a look at Santa Cruz Patch's listing of taquerias. The crowded map says it all. Taquerias are a great place to get a tasty, filling and inexpensive meal, and each one serves its own version of tacos, burritos, quesadillas and other Mexican favorites.

Here are three that I recently visited.

Old Faithful: Taqueria Vallarta

Taqueria Vallarta has three locations in Santa Cruz, and the one on Soquel Avenue near Shopper's Corner is spacious and colorful with floor-to-ceiling murals on two of the walls.

We ordered a chile verde taco, breakfast burrito and two aguas frescas—horchata and tamarindo.

For the taco, two soft corn tortillas were layered and filled with fork-tender pieces of lean pork topped with a salsa heavy with cilantro and chopped white onions. The taco was flavorful but missing the verde, or green, chili sauce I was expecting.

I was worried the breakfast burrito would be greasy from the chorizo, a flavorful, finely ground pork sausage, but the grease was almost completely rendered out. The sausage and eggs were scrambled and then rolled into a large flour tortilla along with refried beans, cheese and salsa.

This was one heavy burrito. Out of curiosity, I decided to weigh it, and it tipped the scales at 1.5 pounds. Topped with some of the fresh tomato salsa that came with the burrito, this is a hearty meal any time of day and can easily feed two people.

The tamarindo was refreshing with a tangy sweet/tart flavor. The horchata gets its milky color and consistency from rice, and makes for a delicious cold, sweet, vanilla-flavored drink. Juices, sodas and beer are also available.

Small Space, Big Menu: Leo's Taco Bar

This taqueria might be small, but the menu offers lots of choices, including daily specials handwritten on a blackboard. Leo's also has a children's menu, including a perro caliente (hot dog).

The vegan taco we tried is a good choice for a light meal, whether you're a vegan or not. A corn tortilla was filled with seasoned rice, beans, guacamole, lettuce and salsa. Other salsas are available at the salsa cart, as well as sliced jalapeños.

We also ordered a bowl of pozole. The savory tomato-based broth with a touch of spicy heat was chock full of large chunks of tender, lean pork and hominy, whole kernels of corn that have been processed to remove the hull and germ. The soup is served with condiments of chopped green cabbage and tomatoes, lime wedges, fresh oregano, thyme and cilantro. You can also spice it up with salsa from the cart or with some Tapatío hot sauce that's on each table.

Drinks include horchata, tamarindo and jamaica (hibiscus) aguas frescas and sodas.

Some English Spoken Here: Taqueria Apatzingan

This might be as authentic as you'll get in Santa Cruz. I felt as if I'd been transported to a taco bar in a small Mexican town. A soccer game in Spanish was airing on the television, and the no-frills table and chairs, along with the paper plates and plastic forks that later came with our food only added to the Mexican village atmosphere. The menu on the wall is in Spanish, but a paper menu is available for us gringos. If your Spanish is rusty (like mine) or non-existent, pointing at the menu always works, although the man behind the counter does speak some English.

The large menu of meat, fish and vegetarian choices includes breakfast dishes, special plates, tortas, sopes, menudo and Salvadoran food, such as pupusas and a Salvadoran breakfast with fried plantains.

We ordered some taqueria basics: a ceviche tostada, fish taco and carnitas plate.

The ceviche tostada had a large helping of raw tilapia "cooked" in lime juice and combined with finely diced tomato, white onion and a scattering of chopped avocado all piled on a crisp corn tortilla. Unlike other tostadas you might be accustomed to, this had no beans or lettuce. The ceviche was tender and flavorful while not overpowered with too much lime.

The fish taco was so full of the grilled tilapia, it was difficult to fold. Mixed with diced cooked onion and sprinkled with cilantro, this also had no lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole or other toppings. In the parts of Mexico I've been, this is the way tacos are served. A plastic bottle of homemade salsa arrived with our food, and a squeeze of the smoky salsa added some heat and flavor to the taco.

The carnitas—slow-cooked pork, slightly shredded and then browned in an oven—was lean and mildly seasoned. It was served with typical refried beans and Mexican rice flavored with garlic, chili powder and tomato paste. You can eat the tasty meat by itself or make up a taco with the corn or flour tortillas that come with the meal.

For drinks, we tried bottled Lima-Limon and Mandarina Jarritos sodas imported from Mexico, a sweet and cold choice on the hot day we were there. Other sodas and juices are available.

If you're looking for authenticity, and you don't mind the no-frills atmosphere, check out Taqueria Apatzingan.

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