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Netflix show ‘Taco Chronicles’ shines light on Tijuana taco shop

       

Angel Mendoza has been serving carne asada tacos at Tacos El Franc since he was 18.

For 27 years, the soft-spoken taquero has provided thousands of tacos to hungry customers in Tijuana’s Zona Rio on an almost nightly basis.

Mendoza doesn’t throw salsa into the air and catch it with a taco behind his back, unlike some of Mexico’s flashy taqueros.

He is the silent hero of one of Tijuana’s most popular taco shops. And this July, people from all over the world experienced the joy of watching him in action thanks to the “Taco Chronicles,” a Netflix series about Mexico’s best tacos.

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The show is a love letter to Mexico’s comfort food. Each episode focuses on one type of taco and features famous chefs glorifying tacos with language usually reserved for works of art.

In the carne asada episode — the one that features Tacos El Franc and Mendoza — chef Cecy Gonzalez describes the grilled steak taco as an out-of-body experience.

“An asada taco tastes like heaven,” she says. “It tastes like home, like family, like friends, like a night out. It is everything, man.”

In that same episode, Mendoza doesn’t say a word. He simply works as Netflix’s cameras captured the artistry of his work.

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Set to opera music, the veteran taquero gracefully flings guacamole and salsa onto juicy steak tacos served on warm hand-made tortillas as hungry customers enjoy the subtle show.

Since the episode aired, Tacos El Franc has seen its business increase by more than 20 percent, according to manager Ramiro Valadez.

That new business is almost exclusively from people who saw the taco shop on Netflix and want to take pictures with Mendoza and the rest of the staff.

“It feels good,” Mendoza said of the recognition he’s gotten from the show. “People say they saw me on TV and that we make the best tacos in all of Tijuana.”

Taqueria Franc in Tijuana, Mexico
In Tijuana, Mexico, customers are encouraged to sit next to the tacos al pastor grill and order directly from Juan Manuel de Estrada.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Tacos El Franc is a classic Mexican taco shop. The taqueros work in an open kitchen where customers build up an appetite surrounded by the aroma of perfectly cooked meat. As patrons shout their orders, a small team of waiters dart around the restaurant carrying up to a dozen plates on both hands to different tables.

Their carne asada is marinated with orange, olive oil, garlic salt, pepper, oregano and a special seasoning. Their al pastor tacos are made with pork loin, which is more expensive but far juicier than the pork other Tijuana taco shops use.

Located just five minutes away from the San Ysidro border crossing, Tacos El Franc has been luring American taco lovers to Tijuana since opening in 1996.

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Appearing on Netflix simply expanded their reach.

People from Oregon, Chicago, Argentina and China have visited Tacos El Franc since “Taco Chronicles” aired in July, said Valadez, the restaurant’s charismatic manager.

“I never imagined that show would turn out to be such a success,” he said.

Pablo Cruz, the creator of “Taco Chronicles” called Tacos El Franc, “the number one taqueria in the world.”

Although their carne asada taco is their bread and butter, they also have amazing tripa, suadero, birria and al pastor tacos, Cruz said.

What makes the carne asada tacos truly a standout is how they incorporate so many flavors. From the thin-cut steak, to the beans cooked in animal fat, fresh guacamole, a simple red salsa and perfect home-made tortillas, Cruz said.

“I really think that Franc to me is the best representation of how a taco can be perfectly delicious,” he said.

Above all, what really sets them apart, is the service, he added. Tacos El Franc treats people like family because they are a family - literally. Valadez’s brother, sister and uncle all work in the restaurant.

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On Tuesday, there was a line outside the small establishment just after it opened at 4 p.m.

Among the first to enter were Brandon Van Baggen and Jeff Leon. The two friends were at the tail end of a Baja vacation that included wine tasting in Valle de Guadalupe and seafood in Ensenada. Van Baggen has lived in San Diego for eight years but had never ventured directly south of the border.

The two decided to go to Tacos El Franc after seeing the “Taco Chronicles.”

“I’m super mad that I hadn’t taken the time to explore (sooner),” Van Baggen said. “There is so much food here, the people are so nice, there is just so much to do.”

A few tables away from them was a family from Vista who stop by Tacos El Franc whenever they visit grandma in Tijuana. Lily Cardenas said her kids start asking about tacos as soon as they cross into Mexico.

“They are more excited for the tacos than for grandma,” she said.

Next to the Cardenas family was the Flores family, a married couple from El Cajon who have been driving down to Tijuana for decades just to eat at Tacos El Franc.

They come so often that Valadez, the manager, remembers their usual order and has it ready for them before they even sit down.

It’s that level of customer service, along with the quality of the food, that keeps people coming back, Valadez said.

“We don’t just come in and work, we make sure everyone leaves happy,” he said. “You go to other taco shops and no one pays attention to you. You have to flag someone down to place an order. Here, we give you quality service. That goes a long way.”

Javier Cabral, a scout for “Taco Chronicles” who traveled throughout Mexico to find the best taquerias, said Tacos El Franc was special because its proximity to the border gives Americans a chance to taste the real deal.

“It’s so magical, and you get a feeling of euphoria and you understand why tacos in Mexico are better,” Cabral said.

What makes Tacos El Franc unique is that it celebrates Tijuana — a border city that is overlooked by people in both Mexico and the U.S.

“Mexicans who live in the interior, they talk so much s— about Tijuana,” Cabral said. “They say it’s not really Mexico, it’s the U.S. It’s unfair. And it faces the same criticism from Americans who take Tijuana for granted.”

The taco shop, Cabral added, embraces Tijuana’s culture by bringing together business people from Mexico City and day-trippers from San Diego to enjoy carne asada tacos side-by-side.

Taqueria Franc in Tijuana, Mexico
At the popular Taqueria Franc in Tijuana, Mexico on August 6, 2019, a waiter carries an assortment of carne asada and al pastor tacos to customers in the dining room.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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