When I left San Francisco in January to come here, I thought I was leaving behind my beloved, authentic Mexican restaurants that were scattered throughout my neighborhood, the Mission District. In the traditionally Hispanic area, the taco meat is succulent and well-seasoned, the salsas spicy and the prices cheap. When I arrived in Southwest Florida, at first glance, it appeared I had been right to mourn my departure. Then, like a mirage in the gringofied desert of bland salsa and ground-beef tacos, a small concrete building painted yellow with white trim appeared beckoning with the name of the patron saint of wanderers – Taqueria San Julian.
It turns out the owner, Leo Alcala from the mountain town of Guanajuato, Mexico, recognized the lack of authentic Mexican places in SWFL a little before I did. Four years ago he opened the first San Julian on South Cleveland Avenue in Fort Myers. I went with some taco-hungry friends to the second installment, on Bayshore in Naples, which opened a year ago.
“The tastes and meats we have you can’t find in a lot of places around here,” Leo’s brother, Pablo Alcala, said. “We’ve tried to bring the taste from Guanajuato, Leon and Mexico City.”
It was 8 p.m. on Friday night, and the place was packed with families and recently relieved workers, ready to squash their appetites. We sat among the photos of Emiliano Zapata and Pope John Paul II at one of the characteristically multicolored tables, and examined the dry-erase board hanging on the wall that serves as the menu.
San Julian offers the things gringos are accustomed to, such as steak, chicken and marinated pork—bisteck, pollo and pastor, respectively. The taqueria also offers some other meat varieties you may not recognize, unless you’ve spent some time on the other side of the Rio Grande. One of my favorites is lengua (tongue). I know at first it does not sound too appetizing, but trust me, lengua is a delicious, tender, delicate cut of meat. And when it is all chopped up, you can’t tell where it came from anyways. There is also suadero (a fattier, tastier version of bisteck), longaniza (a spicy, little sausage), and cabeza (head meat). The meat is served on top of two corn tortillas, more typical in Mexico than the flour variety.
The tacos run $1.50 apiece, and come with cilantro, onions, a piece of radish to help refresh your palate and three types of salsa – verde (mild), roja (medium with a chipotle flavor) and habañera (spicy).
The menu is less than expansive, but it does not end at tacos. You can get a quesadilla with any of the above listed meats for just $2.50, and tostadas de ceviche or camaron for the same price. The ceviche, made from white fish and a lot of lime, comes with large chunks of avocado and packs a punch, so be prepared. The shrimp are medium-sized and grilled nicely, and are more mild.
San Julian also offers a cocktail de camaron with avocado, shrimp and other goodies for $9, or a half-order for $6. I prefer to mix and match between quesadillas, tostadas and tacos of different varieties.
With the telenovela (soap opera) La Fea Mas Bella on the television, we devoured our sampling of tacos, quesadillas and tostadas. Delicious, as usual.
And the best part? The bill came to just $37 for the four of us, including drinks. With the tip, it fell right under our $15 per person limit.