“California fresh” meets family recipes from Guadalajara at Tapatios Cocina Mexicana, a new Mexican restaurant that opened a few months ago in Fitchburg.
It is the first brick-and-mortar eatery for owners Leticia and Daniel Hernandez, who operate the attractive space in a shopping plaza on Cahill Main.
The couple have had a food cart, Cali Fresh, on the UW-Madison Library Mall and at special events for almost four years. They decided to open a more formal kitchen after getting regular requests to do so, Leticia said.
Before the couple thought about entering the food-service industry, Daniel Hernandez had spent 10 years working construction in California. He moved to Madison in 2012 and met Leticia, a city native, and the couple now have two young children.
Daniel was born and raised in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, and some of his family’s recipes have been put to use in Tapatios’ kitchen. There are also ideas from Leticia’s mother, who runs a food cart and a Mexican grocery store in Madison.
“Tapatio” is a nickname for a person or thing from Guadalajara.
The Hernandezes’ entry into the food business was the result of a workplace injury that luckily didn’t become a long-term disability. In early 2013, Daniel fell off a roof while working, broke his back and was forced to wear a back brace for months as he recovered.
“Thank God he didn’t need surgery, and he healed well,” Leticia said, “But there was that possibility of him not healing well.
“I didn’t want him to go back to construction,” she added, “and we were like, what are we going to do now?”
Leticia’s mother suggested the couple think about buying a food cart she had seen for sale. They did, and Daniel worked for months remodeling and painting the cart.
The couple began operating the Cali Fresh food cart in 2014. The cart offers California-style tacos, Cali-Mex burritos and other West Coast favorites that Daniel remembered from his years there.
The couple took their basic menu and added family recipes for the restaurant, which Daniel built last fall and winter by transforming a former pet store into a dining room with handsome tables and booths. It is a comfortable, welcoming space that can become noisy on busy nights.
Service at Tapatios is fast and friendly, and the food is tasty and reasonably priced. Daniel does much of the cooking while Leticia manages the front. The couple say they’re continually adding things to the menu based on customer requests.
After being seated, diners are served a complementary bowl of homemade tortilla chips and a deliciously fresh salsa.
A plate of five mini-tacos ($9.99) is a way for customers to sample a variety of flavors. The tacos are served with an orange hot sauce made with chile de arbol and a milder salsa verde. They are so good you might consider ordering a few of the full-size tacos ($2.75-$3.50), which come with cucumber and cabbage and are drizzled with a creamy, smoky chipotle sauce.
I’d recommend the fried fish taco, but the “el Tapatio” is a close contender with a variety of ingredients—red onion, pico de gallo, cabbage, cucumber, jalapeno and cilantro covered with melted cheese.
The kitchen’s mango salad ($10 with shrimp) is loaded with flavor and texture. It is served with lots of plump shrimp (or another protein of your choice), cubes of Mexican cheese, corn, cabbage, red onion and pieces of mango in a spicy dressing with iceberg lettuce. The salad comes with two corn tortillas filled with melted cheese as a sort of bonus.
A chicken burrito ($8) is huge and has a subtly sweet flavor, and Tapatios’ generously stuffed quesadillas ($8-$9.50) also are worthwhile.
The shrimp fajitas ($16.99) came to our table sizzling on a platter, and they were loaded with juicy shrimp, red and green peppers, onions and spices. Likewise, a chicken torta ($8) featured tender meat cut into small pieces and embedded in beans, with lettuce, tomato and avocado.
Tapatios is in the process of applying for a license to serve hard liquor so it can offer margaritas. But for now, there is beer, a sweet cucumber agua fresca ($3) and a rice-based horchata ($3), along with various sodas. For dessert, there is flan ($3.95) and a chocolate empanada ($5) with vanilla ice cream.
You get the sense Tapatios Cocina Mexicana is a work in progress. There were a few issues with timing during our meal, but good food and friendly service suggest this is a restaurant that is built to last.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.