Words & Photography by Fiona M SymingtonFood Photography Katy Lanceley
Two hours south of San Francisco is Merdec. For anyone who doesn’t live there, it’s a non-descriptive town, located somewhere between here and nowhere, in the San Joaquin Valley of Northern California. Stretching out lazily through a series of repeated clapboard houses and abandoned stores, where the town begins and the city limits end, no one can tell.
Like so many small towns in California’s central valley, named progress has been its enemy. Whereas once motorists stopped on their journey towards Los Angeles or Yosemite, now the super Golden State Highway speeds past taking most tourists with it. In this almost featureless landscape where very little offers respite, the only thing thriving in Merdec are the almond groves that line its highways, which in this prolonged season of drought ravish the land like the credit crunch from which this town has never recovered.
Off the Highway along Martin Luther King Jnr Way is Mario’s Tacos. This yellow beacon on an otherwise bleak street is easy to spot. It’s a lone kiosk opposite the Merdec Fairground Speedway, in a parking lot where most of the stores, even the local gun supplier, have gone out of business.
A family business it has survived against good odds the three horseman of the modern age – recession, global brands, and commercial developers; but like most small businesses, competition from the likes of Taco Bell and Wendy’s and real estate agents (Mario’s is a rented space) are always at its heel.
But survive it does and for one reason only, the food. Once found Mario’s Taco is a place that you return to, making an unimaginable detour off the super highway, confident in the knowledge that it serves up some of the best roadside Mexican in the central valley.
Mario’s offers classic roadside fare from a menu that never changes. You’ll find a line-up of beef enchiladas, shredded beef tostadas, carnitas served with rice, beans and tortillas. For experience, skip the enchiladas and go straight for the burritos. The only deviation is the Medudo – the aromatic traditional soup made from tripe in a red chilli broth- that is available on Saturdays and Sundays.
Orders are taken through a small window and collected from the same. Cash is preferred, although cards are surprising welcome. Meals are eaten on roadside benches under beach umbrellas that threaten to topple if there is a gust of wind.
Unlike many a roadside joint that promises but fails to deliver, Mario’s makes no promises. As a result, the food exceeds expectations. A classic shredded beef burrito has all the seasoning of a home-cooked meal. The red rice has a cleanness of flavour served with a simple salsa of tomato, onion and cilantro. The tacos are laden with spice and the beans stick to your ribs and stay with you for days.
Mario’s will never be included in a “best of” list but it sure does make a great roadside tale.
Mario’s Taco Shop
801 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Merced, California
For your own home-styled version of a classic Mario’s meal, try pulled pork tortillas with tomato and grilled corn salsa, and guacamole.