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Long before there was a Center Park, long before Fridays at Miller Plaza were Fresh and well before Naters became Famous, there was a little red food truck that made my weekends bright and my pants a little too tight. On Sunday afternoons, after a grueling regiment of picking out the perfect wheel of goat cheese and the freshest sprigs of herbs from the produce vendors at the Chattanooga Market, I would fight my way through the teeming masses towards the soft red glow of an unmarked Mexican food truck parked in the back of the pavilion. It was there that I would stand, plate perched upon the slim stainless steel counter, and savor the best tacos and tamales Chattanooga had to offer. The food was simple, unpretentious and served on paper plates with plastic forks, just like god intended.
As one of the first food trucks in the area, it served skinny-jeaned youths outside the now demolished Discoteca, blue-collar workers and intrepid foodies outside Tienda Jalisco, on Main Street—and freshly pressed oxford-cloth collars at the Chattanooga Market. This little red food truck was no respecter of persons. Then, on Nov. 5, the year of our lord 2011, the clouds parted and a double rainbow shot across the sky ending at a petite, reclaimed brick building just across from the legendary Zarzours Cafe. This building at 1634 Rossville Ave. became the brick-and-mortar location of that little red food truck and was officially dubbed “Taqueria Jalisco” (not 1634 Rossville Blvd.; that location once housed a fish market that always smelled like Lake Jr. Do not confuse the two.)
The newly acquired building was remodeled to accommodate six tables inside and several picnic tables on the patio, while all of the cooking is still done inside the food truck parked next to the patio. By 2012, the little red food truck could no longer keep up with their booming business and they bought a larger black-and-stainless-steel food trailer while keeping little red in service as their market truck, continuing to make regular appearances at the Chattanooga Market. This stationary location allowed the menu to expand way beyond tacos and tamales—and I do mean way beyond.
Jorge Parra and his mother Maria Parra work tirelessly as a team running the restaurant. Maria does the cooking; giving the food all of the hallmarks of home-style Mexican food prepared by the skilled, loving hands of a mom, while Jorge is the always smiling face that runs the front of the house. All of the food is made from the freshest ingredients and never prepared in advance, so your tomatillo/avocado salsa, braised pork, or pulled chipotle chicken tastes fresh, because it is fresh. Even the sope tortillas, gordita tortillas, and pupusas are made fresh to order so they are pillowy-soft and warm when they arrive at your table.
Taqueria Jalisco’s menu is representative of traditional Mexican food that hasn’t been Americanized to the point of compromising its roots, yet still remains approachable for the average Chattanoogan. But don’t be mistaken—this is not Taco Bell. Don’t expect to find yellow globs of nacho cheese and mounds of sour cream indiscriminately plopped over every dish.
There are familiar items such as taco and burritos, which you can get with your choice of meats, ranging from the standard shredded chicken or pork to the more adventurous lengua (beef tongue, which tastes like deli roast beef) or nopales (cactus, which reminds me of slightly pickled green beans). Personally, I cannot get enough of their Mole Tamales. These are handmade, soft tamales with tender pulled pork and mole sauce ribboned through the masa itself. The fluffy masa and slow-cooked pork marries with the deep, rich flavors and hint of sweetness from the mole before being wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to tamale perfection.
Mexican street food is sometimes referred to as “antojitos,” which literally means “little cravings.” Sopes may be the perfect antojito with their pint-sized tortillas topped with a variety of toppings. I recommend Taqueria Jalisco’s sope sampler, which comes with four soft, extra-thick and fluffy corn tortillas topped with beans, then one with chorizo and queso fresco, one with carnitas-style pork and pickled cabbage, one with fresh guacamole and queso fresco, and the fourth with nopales and queso fresco.
One of their most popular, and certainly one of their most tasty dishes, is the flautas. These are rolled flour tortillas stuffed with shredded chipotle chicken, fried and topped with homemade pickled vegetables, lettuce, queso fresco, crema and their special avocado/tomatillo salsa that you will quickly become addicted to.
As with any skilled cook’s offerings, each dish at Taqueria Jalisco has a balanced interplay of textures and gustation, meant to simultaneously satisfy and tease your palate. I wish I had the space to elaborate on the varieties of tortas (the king of sandwiches), their bright and crispy tostadas, or the incredible desserts Jorge bakes from scratch three mornings a week, such as the Prichards rum tres leches cake.
Taqueria Jalisco is a BYOB establishment if you fancy a cocktail with your huarache. They also carry the full line of Pure Sodaworks sodas, glass-bottled Mexican Coca-Colas and several flavors of Jarrito. If you want something less sweet, try their house-made fruit agua frescas or their made-from-scratch horchata, a rice-based drink with cinnamon and vanilla.
Get the word out and get to Taqueria Jalisco today. They have been one of the city’s best-kept secrets for entirely too long.
Taqueria Jalisco, open 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 1634 Rossville Ave. (423) 509-3430.