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Menudo Kings

Oakland’s La Casita will change the way you think about Mexico’s most famous hangover cure.

SLIDESHOW

A spread of dishes, including two versions of menudo— white and red.

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Nolberto Martinez Jr. presides over La Casita’s takeout window.

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The mural-bedecked exterior.

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At La Casita, a little mural-bedecked shoebox of a restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, Nolberto Martinez Jr. makes menudo like he was born to do it—to coax flavor out of marrowbones and toasted chilies, and to bring beef tripe to a state of uncommon tenderness.

You might call the soup a birthright of sorts. Martinez bought the restaurant two summers ago from his aunt, Ana Maria Campos, who had run the place for more than a decade. Taqueria Campos, as it was called, was a local favorite for slow-simmered soups and stews like pozole, birria, and what many believed was the best menudo in town. Martinez inherited those recipes. But also: Martinez’s grandmother, Isabela, was the proprietor of La Estrellita Cafe, one of the first Mexican restaurants in Fruitvale. Aunts and uncles on both sides of the family run taquerias in Oakland, Hayward, and San Ramon. They all make the same kind of food: Jalisco-style home cooking, pure and simple.

Still, it took a while for Martinez to heed the call. The 37-year-old had a steady job with Peet’s Coffee, so for a number of years he scratched the itch by throwing taco parties on the side. But when he heard his aunt was retiring, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. These days, customers at La Casita are greeted by Martinez’s booming voice: “What can I get for you, bro?” and, later, “How are you enjoying your menudito, my friend?” A server will bring over the usual chips and salsa, but also a plate of cotija-dusted bean purée so addictive that vegetarians shouldn’t ask if it’s spiked with lard unless they really want to know. (It is, naturally.) Crumple one of the restaurant’s hand-pressed tortillas—puffed up, aromatic, and steaming hot—and drag it through that bean dip for a worthy meal on its own. Be sure to ask for the smoky, extravagantly delicious orange hot sauce that Martinez makes himself.

You won’t go home hungry. Order a bowl of pork pozole ($11/$12), the classic hominy stew, and it comes with not only the aforementioned spread and all the traditional accompaniments, but also a side of hard tacos for good measure—glistening, crisply sheathed bundles of shredded pork or chicken.

It’s for good reason, though, that La Casita is known for one dish above all others. As Martinez puts it, “We’re the menudo kings of Oakland, man!” Because the tripe soup is known for its hangover-curing properties, weekend-morning customers have been known to ask Martinez to fill up a big pot with 10 orders to go. But among the offal-phobic, menudo has a reputation for being too funky to be enjoyable.

La Casita’s menudo rojo ($11/$12), on the other hand, is one that even the masses can enjoy. The broth is delicate and restorative. The garnishes—jalapeños, chiles de árbol, onions, mint leaves, and lime—add layers of brightness, heat, and crunch. Best of all, the tripe and beef trotter—the jiggly, gelatinous bits clinging to the bone—simmer for four hours until they achieve what seems to be an impossible texture. It’s off al that’s so tender, it’s slurpable.
3659 Foothill Blvd. (Near Harrington Ave.), Oakland, 510-261-4260

 

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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