When’s the last time you were in Medina?
If you love real Mexican tacos and tortas, I bet it’s been way too long.
I could go on about the rich historic architecture in the small towns built by the Erie Canal. The pleasures of an afternoon drive near the Niagara Escarpment and the fruit orchards and vineyards it makes possible, buying fresh fruits and vegetables and bottles of wine from roadside stands. Or even the surprisingly hip stores along Medina’s main drag.
But I won't. You can get antiques and wine and corn lots of places. Medina has tacos.
A half mile apart on Route 31, east of Main Street, two tacquerias serve Mexicans working in the fruit belt along Lake Ontario. They’re open from Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. or thereabouts, cash only.
Are they worth the drive? If you roll your eyes when someone insists real tacos need sour cream, the answer is yes.
Let me put it another way. That photograph on top of this story? That’s an al pastor quesadilla, which is pork cooked with pineapple, chiles and spices, with queso fresco, like mozzarella but melty-er, and roasted onions, in a griddled flour tortilla. It cost $2 at Monte Alban.
If you remain to be convinced, read on.
Monte Alban, 507 E. Center St. (also called Route 31), is a Mexican grocery store run by the Rosario family, which operates a taco trailer next door. The family also runs Mariachi de Oro, a full-service Mexican restaurant about two miles away that I reviewed in 2012.
The were five kinds of taco meats Saturday afternoon: beef, chicken, chorizo, barbacoa and al pastor which you can order as tacos, quesadillas or tortas. A torta is a Mexican sub on a toasted roll, one or two types of taco meat piled on, with mild pickled jalapenos, mozzarella-like queso fresco, refried beans, mayonnaise and lettuce. For $5.
Tacos are five for $8, and served in a basket with roasted vegetables, serrano chile and onions. There are two sauces to apply, green tomatillo-based salsa and a red dried chile based sauce that’s even hotter.
There’s an enclosed eating area with picnic tables built onto the grocery store. A television is tuned to a Mexican network. Sodas, including the fruity Jarritos, are in a big white ice chest. The bottle opener is tied to a nearby shelf.
After you eat, you can poke around the store, which has quite an assortment of cowboy hats and boots. Plus about 20 kinds of chiles in bulk, a remarkable array of votive candles, and a piñata with pop star’s face on it. In case you know a bunch of kids who would like to beat Justin Bieber until he dissolves into a candy waterfall.
A few minutes east on the same side of the street is El Gran Burrito, a trailer perched, with perfect taco feng shui, in the parking lot of an auto repair garage. (Google has the address, puzzlingly enough, as 12484 New York State Bicycle Route 5, but I assure you it’s the same old Route 31.)
This is Juan Gonzalez’s trailer, and his tacos are even better. The chorizo, or Mexican sausage, had more fragrant punch, and his array of sauces was broader. El Gran Burrito served us cool, tangy avocado salsa, nutty, fiery, brick-red salsa made from pequin chiles, and green charred-tomatillo-and-chile salsa in mild and hot.
His taco meats were lengua (tongue), which is rich and beefy, chorizo, carnitas (caramelized pork), beef and chicken. Tacos are five for $8, quesadillas $6, burritos with rice and beans $7.
So there’s the taco rundown. I suggest you shop in Medina for a while, poke around, and then head west on Route 31 to Lockport, for dessert.
At Lake Effect Ice Cream’s new parlor, 79 Canal St., you can explore flavors that range from basic to borderline bizarre, from classic vanilla bean to The Aud, which includes Labatts beer and peanuts. Scoops are $2.75, and there’s a full range of shakes and sundaes, which top out at $5.75 for the large size. If you can eat a large by yourself, you should probably review your nutritional profile with a registered dietician.
Canal Street is right next to the most dramatic canal locks in the entire region, lifting boats nearly 150 feet vertically to get them over the escarpment.
I hear that Erie Canal was really something, back in the day. One thing’s for sure: It’s easier to listen to history with a full belly and a satisfied smile.