Roberto Mendez felt something tell him, "One day you will open a taco joint." When his management job at Benihana sent him to New Orleans, he noticed a dearth of quality Mexican restaurants. He used vacation time to open Taqueria Corona (5932 Magazine St., 504-897-3974; www.taqueriacorona.com) and built a following through word of mouth. The "taco joint" has now expanded to two more locations (1827 Hickory Ave., Harahan, 504-738-6722; 3535 Severn Ave., Metairie, 504-885-5088) and celebrated its 25th year of serving "Roberto-New Orleans-Mex" on the Fourth of July.
What's the story behind mala noche?
Mendez: (Regular early patron) Mark Allain went to school in Guadalajara and used to come here to get tacos in the beginning. Mark told me, "Make me one taco this way, OK: with corn tortillas, meat, chopped onions and cilantro and no pico de gallo. That's the only way I eat them because that's the way I ate them in Mexico." One day, he came in and ate a bunch of them. That night, he had a date. The next day he came back and said, "Roberto, you know what you did to me? I had the worst night of my life. It was a bad night." He tried to kiss the girl but he had bad breath because of the onions. We decided to call those tacos "mala noche" which means "bad night."
How did the salsa negra come about?
M: Salsa negra was an accident. I was looking to make dim sum hot chili sauce for myself. I thought they roasted the peppers, so I did that and added sesame oil and started experimenting with it and almost choked myself to death, because when you smoke the peppers, the gas that comes out is lethal — it's like tear gas. It tasted good, though. So I decided to make a bigger batch that tasted more Mexican than Asian, using olive oil, peanut oil and chile de arbol, which is a dried chile. I put dried onions and garlic and cayenne pepper — I made a mess. I started serving it to the regular customers, and they liked it and wanted more. So now I have to make a batch of 30 gallons at a time because I created a monster, and I actually have to use a gas mask, one of those World War II masks with the filter.
What sets Taqueria Corona apart from other Mexican restaurants?
M: We introduced several items to New Orleans, like our flautas, cebollitas and fish and shrimp tacos. Our flauta is something that I kind of invented, the way that we make them. Flautas normally are made with corn tortillas and they are rolled very skinny, with pulled chicken or pulled beef. They are very chewy. So I said, "How about I make a flauta with a flour tortilla?" because when you fry the flour tortilla, it turns into pastry basically, like a puff. And people never heard of shrimp flautas because they don't make them in Mexico. Also, people here had never heard of cebollitas. I also introduced the fish taco. People had never heard of that. Back in the day, there was nothing like it. It was the most innovative, avant-garde Mexican food here. — Megan Braden-Perry