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Cabeza Tacos from Los Altos Meat Market – Eat This, Riverside!

Diving into Riverside's taco treasure, Seth Zurer shares his flavorful journey through Los Altos Meat Market in his inaugural column.

Los Altos Meat Market is located at 2906 Madison Street in Riverside, and open seven days a week from 8am-6pm.

Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many editions of this column, a regular feature devoted to exploring the culinary treasures of Riverside. I am a newcomer to the Inland Empire; my family and I moved from the frigid Midwest a couple of years ago in pursuit of a warmer climate (Check!) and career opportunities (Check! Check!).

It had been a long while since I moved to a new city. In my 25 years as a Chicagoan, I spent a lot of time and energy exploring restaurants, grocery stores and sausage shops, seeking out deliciousness in all its forms, whether on the Magnificent Mile among the towering skyscrapers or at suburban Italian Beef stands, hiding in plain sight in nondescript strip malls.

Truth be told, I’d gotten into a bit of a rut; a delicious rut, but a rut nonetheless. This can happen, even in a place with an embarrassment of culinary riches. The new discovery becomes old hat in the face of routine and repetition. I loved my favorite banh-mi spot and my favorite sourdough pizza place; I knew which farmers market had the best fresh corn and which stand would try to sell me under-ripe peaches in the height of the season (for shame!). But I’d stopped exploring new spots with the enthusiasm of youth.

So, it was a pleasant bonus to have the opportunity to explore new (to me) culinary territory when I arrived in Riverside two winters ago. I may not have decades of accumulated IE experience informing my food research, but I have (if I do say so myself) a discerning palate and a ravenous appetite. I’m excited to share my research with you and to learn about your local favorites.

I’ll start, as my morning meditations often do, with tacos. In what may be a surprise to Southern Californians, Chicago (my old home town) has a huge wealth of Mexican food and culture. Chicago’s population of  Mexican immigrants is second only to LA among US cities. The city has a full range of taquerias, tiendas, bodegas and restaurants, aimed at feeding demand from homesick emigres and locals alike.

So, when I moved here, I was excited to know that my access to Mexican food and culture would be uninterrupted by our relocation. As I roamed Riverside’s neighborhoods, I was happy to see a taco truck on every corner (as God intended) and a healthy variety of Carniceria / Taqueria / Panaderias serving their communities.

One spot that caught my eye (and my affections) is Los Altos Meat Market. Each week as I drove down Madison from my new regular farmstand (Corona Farms, more on them anon), I saw cars jockeying for position in the tiny parking lot dedicated to Los Altos patrons. A steady stream of happy customers emerged laden with styrofoam clamshells full of food and then grabbed a chair to tuck in on the small patio seating area. I knew I had to check it out.

Inside, alongside the tightly packed grocery aisles, there is a taco counter, a station for licuados (horchata and a rotating assortment of fruity aguas frescas), a well-stocked butcher counter and a towering display case filled with pandulces - conchas, cakes, bolillo rolls and more. 

Order your meal at the register and wait for your number to be called. If you are not a Spanish speaker, maybe double check Google Translate to make sure you recognize your order - they’ll call veintinueve instead of “twenty-nine”.

The menu is exhaustive - a dozen meats in various masa-wrapped configurations or available by the pound for home assembly.

The tacos are generously filled and the fillings are good. Highlights for me, from previous lunches, are the carnitas - pork, slow-simmered in a bath of its own fat, dripping and unctuous - and cabeza - pot-roast on steroids, made from beef-cheeks and other parts of the head, braised until fall-apart tender. I also enjoyed the birria de res, another long-cooked beef option.

Their corn tortillas are factory-manufactured in Los Altos’ own Hemet shop - they’re fresh and delicious.

Topped with fresh cilantro and onion, a spritz of lime and a dose of their potent red salsa, three or four Los Altos tacos add up to a meal fit for a king. Gild the lily with a piece of fresh chicharron or a side-dish of some rice and beans.

My only quibble is with their carne asada. Closer to ground beef than grilled steak, it is not my style and is the only filling I’d suggest passing over from the offerings I’ve tried. If you like menudo, get there early on the weekends; they were sold out by 1pm on a recent Saturday.

Los Altos Meat Market is located at 2906 Madison Street in Riverside, and open seven days a week from 8am-6pm. It’s one of four branches in the area, with other locations in San Bernardino and Hemet. All the locations have taquerias in addition to a selection of Mexican groceries.

Do you have a favorite grocery store taco? Did I miss the boat on what to get at Los Altos? Let me know! I’m hungry for feedback and tips for other spots to cover in Riverside. Email with all your comments and suggestions.