You can tell from the street that Mateo’s Hacienda is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall place. The restaurant features a bright orange-painted facade, with a small front window just barely large enough to contain a cartoon rendering of a gloriously stereotypical spaghetti Western Mexican, complete with black handlebar mustache, giant sombrero, and armed with bottles of hot sauce, smiling and holding a giant taco and burrito aloft over his head. Red plastic chili pepper Christmas lights hang sadly under a grime-stained awning, while a sandwichboard on the sidewalk advertises the daily specials. Step through the front door, where letters cut out of tinfoil advise potentially confused customers that the restaurant is “Not Mario’s,” the pizzeria next door, and it becomes even more clear what a small operation Mateo’s Hacienda is. The front of the restaurant features exactly one table for dining in, with a newspaper-cluttered counter and a few stools. The entire back of the space is devoted to a kitchen, dominated by a gigantic stainless steel grease-smeared vent hood.
Jillian: You’d expect to find a place like Mateo’s Hacienda on a dusty road to nowhere, Baja California South. After driving all morning, toward a hidden beach, you’d stop to slam down a few tacos and quench your Mexican thirst with sugary refrescos. A clapboard shack with a hand-painted sign, a grist of surfer guys, and a semi-cold fridge filled with cans of coke and a few Modelo Especials is how it appears in my mind. Instead, Mateo’s is located on a pleasant corner of Bath, next to Mario’s Pizza and Italian Sandwiches.
A giant menu board stretches over the counter, featuring tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and “bowls” for the carb-conscious. I was impressed immediately by the variety of fillings available, including carne asada, pollo al carbon, and rajas, grilled poblano peppers which were always our go-to vegetarian option in Mexico where, despite the smiling reassurances of your server, nothing is actually vegetarian. All of the tacos at Mateo’s Hacienda are served with lettuce and your choice of salsa, which ranges from the very mild to the surprisingly spicy “Mango Fuego,” a fruit salsa spiked with habanero spice. $13 bucks and about five minutes later, and we were out the door with our paper bag filled with two tacos, an enormous quesadilla, and a can of Tab.
Each taco comes individually wrapped in foil with a wedge of fresh lime for squeezing over the top right before eating. Both came folded in a pair of bright yellow store-bought tortillas, which didn’t taste like much, but offered the appropriate structure for containing the filling within. These aren’t big, overblown Tex Mex-style tacos, their influence owing more to small, simple Mexican street tacos, which are often simple preparations of flavorful meat topped with just diced onions and a bit of cilantro.
I tried a pork carnitas and a beef carne asada taco, both with Mango Fuego salsa. The shredded pork of the carnitas was soft and supple, with a seared crust that provided just the right amount of crunch. The carne asada was diced up, well-seasoned with plenty of salt and spice. In both cases, I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of shredded lettuce on the tacos, which may have been trying to make up for the relatively small amount of meat in each taco. At $2.25 a piece, though, these tacos certainly hit the right price point, and eating a few of them certainly feels like a complete meal. The mango and habanero salsa paired perfectly with the pork, with the sweet fruit and spice infusing the tender pork with just the right amount of heat. It wasn’t quite as good a match with the carne asada, where I wish I had opted for a more traditional, tomato-based salsa.
Jillian ordered a quesadilla con rajas ($5.85), a pair of dinner plate-sized flour tortillas filled with melted cheese and a few slivers of roasted chile pepper, grilled on a flat top until lightly crisp on the outside, with rivers of melty cheese on the inside. It was delicious, if also a little light on the roasted chile peppers. I also would have liked some sides of salsa and sour cream for dipping, but along with “light on the lettuce,” that’s an ordering adjustment to make for next time.
Jillian: I went with a quesadilla filled with rajas de poblano – slightly spicy pepper strips – and lots of gooey cheese. Given a choice of tortilla wraps, I will always choose plain white flour. It was everything a good quesadilla should be – a little greasy, an impossible amount of stringy cheese, and well-griddled, not merely microwaved or melted under the broiler; this one is imbued with the flavor of hundreds, perhaps thousands of its predecessors. It demands to be picked up and eaten with your hands. You will inevitably get cheese on your pants.
Rather than first addressing the food, many reviews from customers and critics of Mateo’s Hacienda make mention of two things: First, most people describe what a good group of guys work there, and that’s totally true. Within the five minutes I waited for my food to be prepared, I had heard all about the weather, the counterperson’s two-year-old, as well as his frisbee-golf aspirations, and I walked out of Mateo’s nodding and saying, “Wow, what a good bunch of dudes.” Most online reviewers also mention that Mateo’s feels shabby, and maybe even a little grubby. That’s also true. But most significantly, Mateo’s is cranking out some truly fine takeout food, influenced by the flavors, style, and prices of the taquerias of Mexico.
Jillian: The food is simple and fresh, and they serve Tab, the greatest diet soda ever made. I am definitely going back to Mateo’s. I only wish I could hear the Pacific crashing in the distance. The siren song of Mexico is calling me again.