There are few things more magical than when a friend takes you to his favorite eatery off the beaten path. These are the places you otherwise wouldn't have known about, and become the kind of shared secret upon which true friendship is built.
The friend in question is Dustin "Mateo" King, an organizer who works on projects with the Latino community in Richmond's South Side. Through his work, he's sought out the best tacos, pupusas, sopes and other staples of Central American cuisine. At the risk of violating the underpinnings of our friendship, here are our five favorite places to enjoy these foods.
With its festive atmosphere and extensive taco list, La Cabaña should be your first stop when hunting for tacos. With the restaurant's posters of old Mexican movie stars standing guard, this taqueria offers 15 varieties of taco in the $2-$2.50 range, including vegetarian options. The kitchen is out of oreja (pig ear) both times we visit, but its greasy cabeza de puerco (pork head) and spiced suadero (thin-cut beef brisket) are heavenly. Be sure to try the surprisingly spicy nopales (cactus).
4086 Crockett St.
Staples Mill Shopping Center
Hours vary, but generally Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Blink twice and you'll miss this hole in the wall on Jefferson Davis Highway. The décor is basic, but you can't beat the sopes ($2.50), fried corn masa covered in beans, meat, pico de gallo, lettuce, cream and cheese. The tortas ($7) also are exceptional — giant sandwiches filled with meat, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, avocados and jalapeños. The eatery's salsas are fresh, with the green salsa's mix of tomatillo and serrano spices giving a flavorful kick to any dish.
4108 Jefferson Davis Highway
Monday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Taqueria El Tacorrey
This unassuming food truck on the edge of Hull Street Road lays claim to being the taco king, and the title isn't far from the mark. The al pastor (spit-grilled pork) is marinated in pineapple and spices, which El Tacorrey serves pulled. Try the red sauce, which uses chile de árbol peppers to create an eye-watering sting. Though the truck has indoor seating in a nearby building, this spot seems like it would be best appreciated in warmer weather. At $7 for three tacos, this place is a steal.
5348 Hull Street Road
Daily 1-11 p.m.
Operating in the shell of some previous fast-food establishment, Panchito's interior hasn't changed much, but the food and service are exceptional. The tripe tacos ($7 for three) are a favorite, lightly fried on the outside but still chewy in the center. Don't let your server talk you into the charcoal chicken. Opt for a tamale instead ($2) — corn meal packed around meat and chili sauce, which Panchito serves wrapped in banana leaves. For those who can't spare $2-$3, Panchito offers most of its tacos Wednesdays for $1.
6531 Midlothian Turnpike
Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Tucked in a strip mall off of Chippenham Parkway is Pupuseria Mercedes, which a Salvadoran friend claims has the best pupusas ($1.40-$1.50) in the region. Salvadorian in origin, pupusas are corn masa stuffed with cheese and beans, and best when covered in a healthy helping of curtido, a sort of lightly fermented cole slaw. Go for the chicharrón (fried pork skin) option, served soft and not too fatty here
4000 Meadowdale Blvd.
Daily 9:30 a.m.-8:30 p..m.