Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - June 24, 2011

Fast food with a flavor wallop

A tale of Three Brothers, two taco stands and a truck

by Dale F. Bentson

The parking lot at Three Brothers Tacos on West Bayshore Road in East Palo Alto was filled at noon with workmen's pickup trucks. Inside, customers, mostly but not exclusively Hispanic, lined up to place their orders for enchiladas or tacos, burritos or sopes, chili verde or chili rojo. The message was obvious: good Mexican food here.

The next noonday, at Three Brothers Tacos on University Avenue, also in East Palo Alto, patrons were teenagers, local residents and blue- and white-collar workers of different ethnicities. They, too, seemed to know good Mexican food.

Down the street and around the neighborhoods, the Three Brothers Tacos truck dispensed a limited menu of fresh hot Mexican dishes to workers, students and those lucky enough to be nearby.

The three-pronged operation is smoothly orchestrated by Bernardo Mendoza, who often drives the truck himself. Originally from the Michoacan state in Mexico, he, his brother and sister were the original "three brothers" who started the business in 1995. His siblings have since moved on to other occupations but the name stuck.

It's still a family affair, though. Mendoza's immediate family is active in the operation. The Mendozas grew up in the food and restaurant business in Michoacan. Coming to the Bay Area in the early 1980s, they opened their first taqueria in South San Francisco.

The original Three Brothers Tacos in East Palo Alto sat at the corner of Cooley Avenue and Donohoe Street. The huge blue IKEA store now sits on that spot, and Three Brothers relocated to University Avenue. In 2004, Mendoza acquired the West Bayshore site on the other side of U.S. 101.

Both locations have approximately the same menu and the same high-quality, made-to-order food. Both are open long hours: 8 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m., depending on the night. Both restaurants have sufficient seating, but much of the business is take-out. It's fast enough food, even at busy times. I rarely waited five minutes for my order.

The kitchens in both spaces are open, huge vessels of simmering sauces, juicy meats on the grill and tall pots filled with flaky rice and simmering beans that can be seen just behind the counter. Aromas waft throughout the space; the appetite is quickly revved up.

Decor-wise, Three Brothers is fast-food basic: utilitarian tables and chairs, comfortable enough for a bite to eat but not made for hanging around long. The University location uses disposable flatware, which I found inadequate. I thought it imparted a slight plastic-y flavor to some of the foods. On Bayshore, metal utensils are used.

The meat choices are plentiful: from grilled steak, BBQ pork, shredded chicken, grilled chicken and fried pork to beef tripe, beef tongue, beef head and pork stomach.

I loved the flautas ($10.95). Flautas are also called taquitos, "little flutes" of rolled-up, fried tortillas usually stuffed with meat. I chose barbecued pork for mine. It was a hefty plate. The four taquitos were blanketed with tomato sauce, crisp shredded lettuce and slices of tomato and avocado.

Just about every dish, save for soups and salads, came with refried beans and that great Mexican vermillion-ish hued rice made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapenos, chicken broth and herbs.

The chicken for the Enchiladas Regulares ($10.95) was another generous portion, with rich, vibrant tomato sauce that was not all gooey from cheese. Every morsel oozed freshness. Shredded lettuce, beans and rice accompanied.

The three tacos ($5) were another hit. The grilled chicken sat atop double corn tortillas 5 inches in diameter, topped with shredded lettuce, radishes and avocado. Great flavors, almost a taco salad. Couldn't beat the price.

Menudo ($8) is a traditional Mexican soup made with beef tripe, onions, cilantro, lime and spices. It is very popular in Arizona, New Mexico and southwest Texas. Alas, it's a dish I've never warmed up to and I'll have to rely on your reports as to its quality at Three Brothers. I doubt it would remain on the menu, though, were it not muy popular.

On the other hand, I was eager to try the birria de chivo, or goat soup ($9). According to Diana Kennedy, author of several Mexican cookbooks, "birria" means "something that is a mess."

Birria is messy to cook. There are at least a dozen and a half ingredients: meat, chilies, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and spices, slow-cooked to infuse flavor. It's the most rustic of dishes.

At Three Brothers, the birria helping was enough for two, aromatic, thick and rich with plenty of flavor and loaded with tender goat meat. It was a tad unctuous, though, with a little too much fat left on the meat for my pedestrian taste buds. Definitely hearty fare.

Steak ranchero ($9.95) was strips of beef, bell pepper and onions in a light tomato salsa. The meat was fork-tender, the helping more than sufficient when coupled with the ubiquitous beans and rice.

Camarones a la diabla ($12.50) was a mound of fried prawns in spicy red salsa — not tongue-burning spicy, but lively. It felt good in the mouth. The prawns were half-peeled so that they wouldn't overly curl while cooking. Eating the dish became a finger-licking, hands-on pleasurable operation.

The chili verde ($10.95) was exceptionally good. The pork cubes had been fried in a mild green chili sauce with intriguing hints of herbs and spices. A stack of warm tortillas came with the order. No complaints on the meat/accompaniments ratio.

Beer is available at both locations along with fruit drinks, bottled and fountain sodas, and Mexican Coca-Cola in bottles, which has attained near-cult following. Mexican Coke is still made the old-fashioned way, with cane sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup as it is in the U.S. Does it really taste different, or is it glass-bottle taste versus aluminum-can taste?

Three Brothers Tacos serves fast, inexpensive, delicious, real-deal Mexican food. Eat in for a quick meal, or take it home and be as fancy as you like — it reheats beautifully.

Three Brothers Tacos

2220 University Ave., East Palo Alto

650-324-8801

1760 West Bayshore Rd.

East Palo Alto

650-326-3646

Hours: Sun.-Thu. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m.-11 p.m.

Reservations: no

Website: no

Credit cards: yes

Parking: own lots

Alcohol: beer

Children: yes

Catering: yes

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: courtyard on University

Party facilities: no

Noise level: low

Bathroom cleanliness: good

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