At its most basic, the taco – a beautiful thing – is a simple (if holy) trinity: a tortilla, stuffing, and salsa. Of course, those three humble components can spawn a near infinite variety of taco types with an equally mind-boggling array of fillings, garnishes, and salsas. That the taco has become a cornerstone of many American diets is proof that God is good. Need more proof? Drop into Taqueria Los Lee sometime.
But first, let’s define terms. I am not talking here about the crunchy tacos your mom made for you at home or that you eat at Taco Bell, Del Taco, Taco Time, et. al.: probably ground beef with a powdered spice packet stuffed into a crunchy Ortega shell and topped with shredded yellow cheese and iceberg lettuce. Not that there’s anything wrong with this uniquely American version of the taco. I enjoy them myself occasionally. I just don’t think of those crunchy tacos as resembling anything I’ve ever seen in Mexico. The Americanized taco is to the Mexican taco as Chef Boyardee ravioli is to handmade, Italian ravioli with a sauce made from scratch.
For a real taste of Mexico, you need to visit a place like Taqueria Los Lee. It’s an unassuming, stand-alone eatery adjacent to the Sinclair station at 2700 South and 700 East. It’s often crowded – a testament to how good the food is. The main draw here – not surprising since this is a taqueria – are the tacos. But Taqueria Los Lee also serves really good burritos, quesadillas and gorditas, as well as daily specials like enchiladas on Tuesdays, chicken mole on Wednesdays, and pozole on Thursdays. All of it is made in the cramped kitchen from scratch. I didn’t see a can of anything in the kitchen, and even the delicious refried beans and Mexican-style rice taste homemade.
If you’re looking for exotic taco fillings like lengua (calf’s tongue), tripe, pulpo (octopus), brains, insects and such, you’ll need to go elsewhere. They are available here in SLC, but not at Taqueria Los Lee. The Los Lee menu is geared more towards gringo tastes, with taco stuffings that aren’t too challenging: Asada (steak), Pollo (chicken), ground beef and potatoes, queso (cheese), and pork – versions with red or green sauce. Don’t eat meat? Los Lee has you covered with bean tacos (frijoles) and sweet potato tacos.
All menu items are available a la carte, but the best bargains are the combo meals which include generous servings of rice and beans. Most of the combos are for either two items (e.g. two tacos or two gorditas or one of each) for $5.99-$6.99 or three such items in any combination for $7.99-$8.99.
Tacos and Gorditas
On our last visit, my wife and I both ordered combo plates of tacos and gorditas. If you’ve never indulged in a gordita, it’s time to rectify that. A gordita is a sort of Mexican pastry made of masa that looks like a thick pancake. It’s stuffed with any of the variety of taco and burrito stuffings mentioned above, like Asada, queso, sweet potato, etc., then pan-fried until crispy.
The gorditas at Taqueria Los Lee, in my opinion, are even more delicious than the tacos. My wife had one stuffed with ground beef and potatoes that was outstanding, as was the green chile pork gordita that I enjoyed. I look forward, eventually, to trying all of them.
The tacos (1.99 a la carte) are larger than many of the street cart tacos you find and very simple and straightforward. The soft, hot corn tortillas come with the fillings of your choice, minced white onion, fresh cilantro, and that’s it. Of course, there are a variety of homemade salsas available at each table. But frankly, the tacos are so good here that I didn’t want to obfuscate the flavors by adding too many toppings. The Asada tacos are made with beef lightly seasoned with cumin, where the meat itself is the main attraction. With the pork tacos, the red and green sauces play a bigger role.
And I don’t want to overlook the side dishes. One way I judge a Mexican restaurant is by its refried beans. The frijoles at Taqueria Los Lee are as scrumptious as any I’ve ever tasted; they’re creamy and delicious, with a special ingredient that makes for the best refried beans: lard and/or pork fat. The Mexican-style rice, too, is a cut above.
For anyone who loves pozole as I do, I strongly urge you to head to Taqueria Los Lee on Thursday when pozole ($9.99) is the daily special. It’s red chile pozole with lots of tender, shredded pork, hominy, and all the fixins like diced radish, onion, lettuce, homemade tortilla chips and such, so you can customize your pozole to suit your taste.
Still, as good (and cheap) as the food is, there’s another reason to flock to Taqueria Los Lee: family values. This is a family affair from top to bottom, with mom (Rosa) and dad (Oscar) cooking in the kitchen and their daughters greeting customers and taking orders at the counter. A younger, third generation of the Lees can often be found playing in the back or hopping from table to table visiting customers and being as cute as can be. The Lee family has been dishing up authentic Mexican fare in Utah for over 15 years, starting with a catering business. They simply couldn’t be more friendly, outgoing, helpful and generous. These are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met in the restaurant business or elsewhere. They are the sort of people – who express the type of family values that we supposedly cherish here – that we need more of in our country, not fewer.
There are plenty of places in and around SLC to find authentic, Mexican tacos and other fare. But you won’t find a spot that is more inviting and that feels more like home than Taqueria Los Lee.
Culinary quote of the week:
I don’t drink anymore for Cinco de Mayo. I celebrate with Mexican food, or as it’s known in Mexico: ‘food.’
— Craig Ferguson
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.
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