If you haven't lived in Redding long, you might be surprised to know that Market Street used to be part of California's main thoroughfare. The Highway Formerly Known As 99 ran from Mexico to the Oregon border and was quite the accomplishment in interstate highways. When Interstate 5 was completed - likewise an accomplishment - it decimated businesses along 99, including Market Streets north and south (AKA State Route 273). Looking at it now, it's hard to believe that it was lined with perfectly respectable motels, restaurants, and other businesses (remember the Coliseum Roller Skating Rink? Chesty's Floor Shop? A&W? Paul Bunyan?).
A Denny's Restaurant operated on 273 in the 1960s and '70s; it morphed into the Lime Tree Restaurant, which later became AJ's. Four years ago Roque and Tiferet Carbajal opened Sweetie's in that old Denny's, serving up their seasonal specialties like heirloom tomato Benedict and strawberry-rhubarb cobbler alongside home-smoked & barbecued meats to an appreciative customer base. Now Roque Carbajal has opened Roquito's Taqueria on South Market, take-out Mexican in a tiny building that formerly housed to-go pizza and was perhaps best known as "that place next to The Tropics."
Though there are a few picnic tables on the south side of the building, Roquito's is really a take-it-home kind of place. There's just enough room to squeeze inside and order; you watch your food assembled in the tiny kitchen. Or phone your order in ahead and pick it up; Femme de Joie wished desperately she had done this while waiting behind a customer who ordered a LOT of food yet seemed to not know what each item actually was.
Nachos with grilled chicken, Roquito style, $7.50
"Roquito style" is available on all menu items for an extra dollar and is worth it; it includes cabbage, pico de gallo, Jalepenos, cilantro, onion, lime, and a spicy creamy sauce drizzled over. Although M. de Joie had her misgivings when she saw the nachos being assembled in a smallish-to-medium-size Styrofoam take-out box, the end product was more than the sum of its parts. Melty cheese sauce ladled over house-made chips with all of the Roquito toppings plus morsels of grilled chicken made two very generous servings and we wound up scraping the box for leftover smidgens of sauce. The chicken got a bit lost amidst all the competing flavors so a more strongly flavored meat like carnitas or barbacoa would work better - or no meat at all.
Smoked carnitas torta, $9.50
Many Mexican restaurants don't offer tortas; if they do, it's likely inoffensive and unmemorable. The crusty grilled bolillo roll was necessary to hold the juicy filling - the house spicy sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and delectable smoked pork carnitas all pressed together. The smoked carnitas was one of the better versions in town, with real wood smoke taste on pull-apart shreds of pork. In fact, an order of the carnitas alone would be fantastic - it's that good.
Carne Asada burrito, $8.50
Roquito's does a few things differently: whole wheat tortillas instead of white. Ranchero beans (pintos in a smoky sauce) instead of refried. And brown rice in place of the usual reddish annatto "Spanish" rice. So you can have a giant burrito and a lot less guilt. This was filling but not heavy with niblets of grilled carne asada beef peeking though - again, the meat got a little overwhelmed by all the toppings, but the little bites were delicious on their own.
Roque Carbajal is onto something here. The limited menu - no enchiladas, no chile rellanos, no tamales - lets Roquitos focus on just a few things and do them very well. Staff is efficient, friendly, and helpful even when the little foyer is packed. Grilled meat from Sweetie's is on tap. Prices are reasonable for the quality and serving size. They serve Cholula Hot Sauce in to-go packets. Is it too much to dream that Sweetie's and Roquito's might be the harbinger of a Renaissance of South Market Street?
Roquito's Taqueria, 2605 South Market Street, Redding, CA 96001. 530-768-1103. Open Monday through Saturday, 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM. Closed Sunday. Cash and cards, no checks. No alcohol. Parking is wherever you can find it - there's a vacant lot to the north of The Tropics. Vegetarian and vegan options. Follow them on Facebook.