Vancouver’s melting pot
The Fourth Plain corridor has been attracting newcomers since the name was first devised by Hudson’s Bay Company map makers about 150 years ago. The heart of that corridor was originally the trail (and later, road) that led from Fort Vancouver to the Fourth Plain (a large forest clearing now known as Orchards).
In World War II, the government put inexpensive housing in this area for shipyard workers. Later, the affordable housing and lower-cost business space attracted immigrants.
“When I moved here in the 1980s, the area was filled with Hmong, then people from Vietnam and Thailand came,” said Pat Jollota, historian and former Vancouver City Council member. “The Southeast Asian immigrants assimilated and moved to other parts of the city, then the Russians came and everywhere you would see signs in Russian. Then came people from Mexico and Central America. This is an entry neighborhood, you will see traces of each of these waves of immigration.”
This area continues to be a beacon for immigrant-owned businesses in Vancouver. Recently, the city of Vancouver created a Fourth Plain Forward initiative to improve the corridor’ safety and appearance and assist entrepreneurs with businesses in the area. As part of this plan, dazzling murals were painted on the side of several businesses this summer.
— Rachel Pinsky
If you are interested in learning more about tacos, I highly recommend “Tacopedia,” by Déborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena.
• Asada: Grilled steak.
• Al pastor: Marinated pork, cooked on an upright spit.
• Cabeza: Translates as head, most taquerias and taco trucks just use the beef cheek.
• Tripa: Tripe, soft or crunchy small intestines.
• Lengua: Tongue, usually beef tongue.
• Barbacoa: Meat slow cooked over a fire, traditionally a fire pit.
• Pansita/pancita: Lamb tripe.
• Pupusa: A Salvadoran dish, a thick corn tortilla with a savory filling. Typical fillings are cheese, pork, a pickled flower bud (loroco), and/or refried beans.
For fans of Mexican food, Fourth Plain Boulevard is a treasure trove.
The corridor between Interstates 5 and 205 has long been a beacon for wave after wave of immigrant communities and in its current reincarnation is packed with Mexican markets, bakeries and other businesses catering to immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Finding the best taqueria when there are eight of them practically next to each other can be overwhelming, so where to start? I canvassed the Fourth Plain corridor to find every taqueria and taco truck that I could. Then I did a Google map search to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
In the last month, I visited every place on my list. So. Many. Tacos.
Tacos may seem simple — a combination of tortillas, meat, toppings (chopped onion, cilantro, salsa) — but each component has to be fresh and skillfully prepared. If the tortilla is stale, it will crumble in your hands. If the meat was prepared a while ago, left in a warming tray and reheated, it won’t taste as good as meat grilled to order. Making great tacos is a labor of love; it requires attention and care. Fortunately for us, the owners/chefs at my favorite places take their work seriously: serving fresh, delicious tacos every day.
My picks for the Best of Fourth Plain are listed below, but if you want to try all of them on your own or blaze your own taco trail, here are a few clues you can use to guess if a taqueria (literally, “taco stand”) is good.
• If there is a mural of a scene in Mexico — a man on a burro riding through agave fields, a sailboat approaching turbulent waves — the food will most likely be good.
• If there is a drive-thru, the food will probably be OK or just bad. It is almost impossible for someone to make a great taco in the time it takes to order and drive to a window.
• Television sets showing Spanish-language television shows (talk shows, soccer games) appear at good and bad taquerias, so their presence is an unclear sign.
• If the salsa and topping bar looks like it was ransacked by wild monkeys, or there is salsa dripping from the lip of the garbage can, or if there is food on the floor under the booths that looks like it has been there so long that it is impossible to pry it off the floor — just leave.
Fourth Plain’s best tacos
Rachel Pinsky’s picks for the best tacos from places along Fourth Plain Boulevard:
3503 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver. 360-695-1797.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday,
11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
4 Caminos can be found in an unassuming store front next to a Texaco station on Wilson Avenue and Fourth Plain. You can order at the counter or sit down. When you enter, it is likely you will be greeted by co-owner Edith Cena. Cena (and her husband Max Gonzales-Rodrigues) took the restaurant over from her sister-in-law three years ago. I ordered the al pastor, the lengua (beef tongue), and the asada tacos. Tacos can be ordered American style (with lettuce and cheese) or Mexican style (there is a self serve bar of fresh toppings such as cilantro, onion, radishes, pickled vegetables, and lime slices). There is a mild red salsa and a spicy green salsa available at the self serve condiment bar. I sat down and waited for my food.
I was fortunate to sit down just as my horoscope (Pisces) was being given on Hoy. The astrologer said that I needed to express myself, then my tacos arrived. The tacos were excellent — the tortillas were fresh, pliable white corn tortillas. The lengua were small, cube-shaped clouds of meat. This was the best lengua I had while researching this article. Gonzales-Rodrigues told me that he cooks it on low heat for four hours to get it just right. He makes all the meat fresh several times a day so it won’t sit for a long time or need to be reheated. The al pastor was a nice contrast of pineapple and spice. The asada was meaty and had a good chew to it. I topped my tacos with a bit of cilantro, onion and a squeeze of fresh lime. I tried both salsas. The red salsa is mild and the green salsa is a spicier lime-y tomatillo salsa.
5930 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Suite 104, Vancouver. 360-213-1004.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Friday,
10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday.
This restaurant is tucked into the strip mall next to Don Taco along with Sorya Market and Mercado Latino. I ordered the lengua, pastor and asada tacos at the counter and sat at a table watching soccer and listening to love songs sung in Spanish. As I waited, a guy, who looked like the director Kevin Smith, encased in a light-weight black cotton robe (marked to make the wearer’s body look like Darth Vader) came in with his girlfriend and asked the woman at the counter whether some dish was authentic. I tried to figure out what dish he was talking about, and I turned around a bit in my chair to see if Morelia Grill passed his authenticity test. I really don’t know what happened, because then my tacos came and I was focused on my work.
The tacos came in one tortilla each. This is a good sign. If a taqueria serves their tacos with only a single tortilla each, they know that the tortillas are fresh and won’t crack when you grip them around the meat. The tortillas were very fresh. The tacos were medium sized, topped with fresh cilantro and onion, and served with a slice of lime. Red and green salsas were placed on the table in large squeeze bottles. The green salsa was a hot, tomatillo salsa. The red was a complex mix of chiles that left little chile specks on the tortillas. The al pastor taco had a tomato-y red sauce with grilled onions and tiny cubes of pineapple. The lengua was tender cubes of meat and the carne asada was nicely charred.
Su Casa Marquez
5406 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver. 360-448-6127.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday,
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, closed on Mondays.
For the last seven years, Cesencio (Chencho) Martinez and his wife, Maurilia Marquez, have served homemade food from their small restaurant on Fourth Plain and Stapleton Road. The recipes are Marquez’s; but, you will find both owners in the kitchen. I frequently find myself here, because it feels like eating in someone’s home. The sombreros and still life paintings on the wall and the homey plates that the food are served on give this impression. But, the name Su Casa Marquez (Marquez’s House) isn’t just a name — the owners feed you and treat you as if you as you if are guests in their home.
Everything is made fresh everyday, that includes: the salsas, the meat, and the tortillas. The tortillas are the best I had on my monthlong taco tour of Fourth Plain. They look and taste handmade — they had a nice toothsome bite to them and if you pull them they stretch. They are freckled with bits of brown and gold from the grill. Tacos are served on a single tortilla and topped with onions and cilantro. There are a variety of meat choices (pollo, asada, chorizo, al pastor, cabeza, tripe, lengua en salsa roja, lengua, fish, barbacoa, and tripe). I tried the al pastor and the asada. The asada were tiny strips of chewy steak. The al pastor had a tomato-y red sauce that stained the tortillas and dripped on the plate as I took bites from the taco. Grilled onions were mixed in with the pork. They were delicious.
I know this is an article about tacos; but, I need to mention the pupusas at Su Casa Marquez. Yes, it is unusual to see pupusas at a Mexican restaurant; but, Mrs. Marquez has a way with this Salvadoran dish comprised of thick corn tortillas stuffed with a savory filling. Mr. Martinez’s favorite is the coroco (a pickled flower) and queso (cheese) pupusa.
La Raza El 100% Chingón
4905 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver. 360-903-5023.
Hours: Call to check for hours.
This isn’t L.A., International Boulevard in Oakland, or a town in Mexico. In Clark County, there are only a handful of taco trucks and this is the only taco truck I successfully visited on Fourth Plain. There is another taco truck that is parked by Butcher Brothers that I stalked relentlessly during the month or so that I worked on this piece. I peered inside its murky windows on several occasions and there was no sign of life. So, La Raza El 100% Chingon was the only truck I visited.
If you are one of those people who believe: 1) Tacos should cost $1.50, and 2) All good tacos come from food trucks, this is your place.
If you don’t have a bunch of taco-related rules, but you like good food — this is your place, as well. It is located in front of Vick’s Market on Fourth Plain near General Anderson Avenue. Just look for the DQ sign next door.
The tacos are made to order. The tortillas and toppings (onion and cilantro) are fresh and there are many meat choices (asada, pollo, al pastor, lengua, cabeza, chicharron, barbacoa, pansita). There are two choice of salsa — a hot green tomatillo salsa and a mild red salsa. I tried two of the slow-cooked stewed meats (lengua and barbacoa) and two grilled meats (al pastor and asada). The lengua came in large chunks that quiver on the tongue like jello. The barbacoa fell apart in waves and had a nice gaminess. The al pastor was my favorite — the tiny cubes of pork were spiced liberally and mixed with bits of grilled onion. The asada was crispy and chewy. If you aren’t familiar with the term chingón, it is Mexican slang for “badass.”
These tacos are totally chingón.
Portland Taqueria Mexican Market
11505 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Vancouver. 360-885-4526.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
This place is a bit out of the way. It is in a strip mall on Fourth Plain and Gher Road next to a National Guard Recruitment Center. If you find yourself in the area or you want to stock up on fresh Mexican baked goods, corn husks for tamales, chiles, a tortilla press or a Spider-Man piñata, it is worth the trip. This small store, owned by the Herrera family (a family member owns Portland Taqueria in Portland) is packed with Mexican goodies; along with a taqueria with long wood tables. The tacos are $1.50 each. The meat choices when I visited were spicy pork, carnitas, chicken, steak, and chorizo. Salsas are spicy green or mild red. I got the spicy pork and the steak. Each taco had two small corn tortillas and were topped with loads of fresh cilantro and chopped onion. A slice of lime and a quarter moon of radish were on the side. The tortillas were warm, pliable and tasted handmade. The meats were nicely grilled and tasty. The space was very clean and the service was friendly and efficient.
Other places I visited
I also visited Don Taco, Javier #3, El Antojo, Las Islas Maria Mariscos Estilo Nayarit. You can find some of their locations on the map that accompanies this story.
— Rachel Pinsky