There’s a special place in my heart for Mexican eateries like La Sierra Tarasca.
First, and not least, in a time when the president calls our Latin American neighbors thugs, criminals and rapists and orders refugee families separated at the border, it’s time for the rest of us to stand up for our Latinx brothers and sisters, whether they have green cards or not. That matters.
Second, but far from least, I love Mexican food, especially carnitas. This iconic Mexican pork dish puts even Southern pulled pork barbecue – which it only superficially resembles – in deep shade.
Carnitas – whose name translates literally from Spanish as “little meats” – is made all over Mexico, and you’ll rarely find a taqueria that doesn’t feature it as taco meat. But carnitas got its start in Michoacán (“Meech-o-wah-kahn”) , the mountainous province west of Mexico City, where the ancient Tarascan people held their own against the powerful Aztec Empire.
La Sierra Tarasca? The name of this restaurant literally means “the Tarascan mountains”! This place has its roots in Michoacán, and it shows in some of the best carnitas I’ve ever enjoyed.
It’s a bit of a trip for many of us, out Old Shepherdsville Road past Appliance Park, past Fern Valley Road, to the strip mall where La Sierra Tarasca Mexican Restaurant resides a few doors from its sibling, La Sierra Tarasca Mexican Grocery and Carniceria.
More than just a taqueria, it joins a growing local Mexican-restaurant genre that we might call taqueria-plus, with table service and a broader menu that features regional specialties along with Mexican standards.
Decor is simple but bright, with turquoise, hot pink and yellow walls and colorful traditional cutout papel picado art hanging overhead in eye-catching rows of yellow, sky blue, red, and green.
Complimentary chips and salsa signaled good things to come. Yellow corn chips were admirably fresh and crisp. Dips were hot and hotter: Red salsa was textured and subtle with medium heat; a creamy, pale green avocado-jalapeño puree will light you up.
The six-page laminated menu offers a broad selection, and the prices are right. Tacos are $2 for small, $2.50 for large. Sopes and gorditas are $3.50; most tostadas are $3.25. Tortas are $6.99 or $7.99, save for the torta al gusto with three fillings for $9.99. Oversize burritos are $8.99 to $10.99, unless you spring for the la parrillada, which will set you back $15.99 for a giant model stuffed with steak, chicken, and shrimp. Fifteen lunch plates, all under $10, are available weekdays.
Don’t make your final decision until you get to the dinner plates, which will tempt you with 21 entrees, which range in price from $8.99 (for a quesadilla dinner) to $14.99 (for bistec a la mexicana, a skirt steak grilled with onions and served with tortillas, rice and beans, and salad.
A lot of our neighbors were getting mojarra dorada, a whole fried golden mojarra fish, a Mexican species that resembles tilapia, while others were taking advantage of weekend specials on oversize bowls filled with restorative soups: Menudo, the classic spicy tripe soup hangover cure ($9.99), caldo de res, a hearty, filling beef and vegetable soup ($11.99), and caldo 7 mares, a steaming seafood soup ($14.99).
Maybe next time for those. This day we came for carnitas, and we left fully satisfied. A huge serving of carnitas estilo michocoán, pictured above, ($10.99, carnitas Michoacán style) displayed the carful subtlety that makes this dish special. It had been pulled into bite-size or smaller bits whose varying texture suggested use of the whole pig or much of it, marinated in citrus and slowly deep-fried at low temperature in pork fat or lard, then finished at high temperature to yield a tasty mix of tender bits and crunchy brown edges. Warm, house-made corn and flour tortillas provided the means for make-your-own tacos.
Huevos rancheros ($6.99) also signaled a competent hand in the kitchen: Three soft, sunny-side-up fried eggs were smothered with a delicious ranchero sauce, a smooth, bright-red blend of tomatoes, onions, and Mexican chiles that sang in harmony with the eggs. Both dishes were served with well-made, creamy frijoles and tasty, veggie-studded yellow rice.
Mexican and domestic beers are available, along with cane-sugar Mexican Cokes, Jarritos sodas, and north-of-the border soft drinks. We went with zero-calorie ice water and enjoyed a filling meal for a thrifty $20.12, plus a $7 tip.
La Sierra Tarasca
6501 Shepherdsville Road
Robin Garr’s rating: 88 points.
Noise level: A happy bilingual buzz filled the good-size room on a busy Sunday afternoon, but it was no barrier to conversation. (Average sound was 72dB, the level of loud normal conversation, with occasional spikes to 86dB, similar to the sound of a hair dryer set on medium.)
Accessibility: The restaurant’s entrance and dining areas are on the level, accessible to wheelchairs, but the restrooms aren’t equipped with facilities for wheelchair users.