As I take my eighth turn since exiting the Pike, my friend wonders aloud if I know my way. Yes, I memorized this route like a treasure map when I worked nearby years ago: follow the river road past the bubble-shaped church, left onto Willow, and there, next to the biker bar, is Taquería El Amigo. Far from Waltham’s downtown restaurant cluster, this 16-seat storefront is the quintessential hidden gem, a tiny cash-only joint where every patron is speaking Spanish and lustily devouring bowls of menudo ($7.50, weekends only) and plates of tacos.
Everything I remember is still in place: garish orange-and-yellow stucco walls, worn linoleum, cheesy sombrero/serape décor, telenovelas on the TV, and a friendly server bringing complimentary tortilla chips and pico de gallo. I order an old favorite: tacos especiales de cabeza ($5.25), four tacos generously stuffed with long-braised beef cheek (which has the fatty richness and stringy texture of short ribs), chopped onion, fresh avocado chunks, and fresh cilantro. It’s a bit greasy, but the double layer of soft corn tortillas holds it all together, and the slightly gamy quality of the cabeza melds wonderfully with the raw vegetables. This is taco heaven, and equally transporting in versions of lengua (braised tongue), carne asada (grilled marinated beef flank), carnitas (spicy, alternately tender and crunchy pork shoulder), or pollo (roast chicken).
Chiles rellenos de pollo ($7.95) are similarly extraordinary: two roasted green poblano peppers stuffed with spicy shredded chicken and cheese, coated with a subtly seasoned egg-cornmeal batter and fried. This is another superb combination of contrasting textures and flavors, made into an ample meal with sides of refried pinto beans, white rice, lettuce, onion, tomatoes, and a stack of warm corn tortillas. Soft drinks include fresh-tasting horchata ($2), a sweet-spiced rice-based beverage; and licuados ($3), smoothie-like milk and fresh-fruit blender drinks in such flavors as fresa (strawberry), banana, and papaya. Our check for two comes to $19 before tip, and we depart feeling pleasantly full and exhilarated. Taquería El Amigo is exactly the sort of unpretentious, authentic, and utterly delicious neighborhood place that budget gourmands dream about.
Taquería El Amigo, located at 196 Willow Street, in Waltham, is open on Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 am to 10 pm, and on Sunday, from 10 am to 8 pm. Call 781.642.7410.