Taqueria Corona © 2015

Taco King By Kandace Power Graves 

Gambit, September 30, 2003: Restaurateur Roberto Méndez stands in front of a painting of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and Mardi Gras revelers, which he says melds the revolutionary idea and New Orleans-inspired spirit of his Taqueria Corona eatery.

 

For a long time, Roberto Méndez thought his entrepreneurial dream was to own and operate a hotel. The San Salvador native studied hotel and restaurant management in Japan, learned Continental-style culinary techniques, and came to the United States as a chef for Benihana. Some time during his professional journey, however, he changed course and realized what he really wanted to do was introduce New Orleanians to inexpensive, authentic Mexican food -- minus the grease present in many versions -- served in a small, casual neighborhood eatery and bar.

 

With that thought in mind, Mendez 20 years ago opened the first Taqueria Corona at 5932 Magazine St. (897-3974) with two wire-spool tables and 10 stools at a bar overlooking the kitchen. He was the only employee. The idea was a hit with locals, and within a short time he bought the building that housed the original taco stand and expanded the seating space, and later opened a second restaurant in the then-fledgling Warehouse District (857 Fulton St., 524-9805). Today, Méndez and three of his brothers operate two additional locations (3535 Severn Ave., Metairie, 885-5088; 1827 Hickory Ave., Harahan, 738-6722).

 

"I opened small to see if it would work," he says of the Uptown eatery. "I didn't even list the telephone number for a long time. I introduced the word 'taqueria' to Louisiana." (A taqueria is to tacos what a pizzeria is to the Italian pies; "corona" is Spanish for crown.) He opened on July 4, 1988, without so much as a sign outside and had a few customers trickle in. The next day, those diners brought several friends and the business grew slowly. It hit a crescendo that led him to expand after a local newspaper ran a story about the hidden treasure and Mendez had so many customers the next day that he ran out of food.

 

The secret, he says, is using all fresh ingredients, hand-cutting produce such as avocados and tomatoes used in guacamole and salsa, and using cholesterol-free peanut and olive oil as well as trimmed lean meats. The menu also offers diversity, expanding Americans' image of tacos made only with ground beef, tomato, cheese and lettuce to more adventurous versions of tacos and burritos made with pork, steak strips, shrimp, fish, tongue, chicken and chorizo. Everything is made fresh to order and most is priced a la carte. The atmosphere is one in which people feel comfortable to eat leisurely and visit.

 

"We don't make Taqueria," Méndez says of his staff. "The customers make Taqueria. It's an unsophisticated, unpretentious way of doing things. ... I was influenced by New Orleans tastes; I wanted Taqueria to be like a neighborhood po-boy place, like Charlie's Steak House. It's a very simple way of doing the food. It's home food."

 

On the drink menu are eight types of top-shelf tequilas for margaritas and manzanitas, a tequila & sour green apple-based martini; bloody Marys and screwdrivers; Cuba Libre, Coke, rum and lime; wines and both domestic and imported beers. Desserts include flan, Mexican rice pudding and the new Flauta Duice: vanilla cheesecake with a banana rolled in a flauta with strawberry sauce and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

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