Eagle Rock, relatively speaking, could be one of the most unattractive corners of the city. Wedged against the northern mountains, Mt. Washington, and Pasadena, it looks like another sunny corridor of Anywhere, USA. Strip malls and body shops litter its two major thoroughfares, Eagle Rock Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard, and smatterings of restaurants and independent vendors make up the ground in between. The major chains and retailers have skipped this pocket or moved out entirely. This fits the nature of the place – it has an organic, offbeat funk that most neighborhoods only try to project. While other pockets of the city are perceived as havens of creativity, something in the water here has drawn artists of all types.
I like to think that it’s because of the Eagle Rock itself, gazing and inspiring people to its heights.
Of course appearances are deceiving. In between a strip mall and a Trader Joes, Cacao Mexicatessen is Aztlan on Colorado Boulevard. It could just be another adobe-inspired, anglicized Mexican restaurant serving Mexican food acceptable for, well, New Yorkers and their West coast equivalents. Fortunately they provide the complete opposite. While it appears to be as safe and homely, dining here is much like getting rockets attached to roller skates: once you realize you’re moving fast, well, its a pretty smooth ride.
Cacao manages to make the simple Mexican classics and touch them up into memorable styles. The menu makes a point to delineate the styles and offer them either as tacos, sopes, or burritos. Tortas are presented to both meat eaters and vegetarians, and, without a doubt, are incredibly satisfying. The favoritos include the underrated classic of a hard potato taco and the generally firey cochinita pibil. The taqueria has carne asada and carnitas but spiced way better than your local taco truck. And the taqueria de los mayas has some of the most heavenly additions. The Chicharron de Pato is the crispiness of duck skin garnished beautifully, while the Carnitas de Pato goes without question as one of the best tacos you might ever have. As George Zimmer would say, “I guarantee it.”
Going vegetarian here is a great idea. You can have a Huitlacoche (corn truffle), Jamaica (Hibiscus flower), or calabacitas (zucchini) and be happy. I am always happy going vegetarian in this abode. Here is one of my favorite combinations, or a “taco happy hour” special if you will: A calabacitas taco and a chile relleno burrito stuffed with corn and cheese.
Without a liquor license (although I believe a beer/wine one is pending), you have to trust (gasp) non-alcoholic choices. Let’s put it this way: It’s one of my favorite horchatas in the city. Rich in cinnamon, rice, and a bit of almonds, it is cool and satisfying. The varieties of Mexican hot chocolate are great for the rainy days, both spicy and flavorful. A confession, I am a choco-holic (prompting various significant others to wonder why I don’t marry a bar of 70% cacao), and I feel very comfortable here.
Cacao is worth the trip from whichever part of town you are from. It lacks the “street-grit” of so many curbside tacos and may command a dollar or two more per dish than you would expect. It’s a trade off for the comfortable setting, kind staff, and high food quality. And don’t be a wimp – go for the gusto. Especially the Mole fries… oh yes… there are mole fries, and they are wonderful.