LA-Style Tacos in New Hampshire
Luchador Tacos in North Conway brings a taste of the West Coast to the Granite State
I told my grandfather about Luchador Tacos. As a lifelong New Hampshire resident exposed to grocery store hard-shell taco kits and underwhelming Mexican food, he said, “I don’t know how you’ll write about a taco. What’s so great about a taco?”
On the drive over the icy winter backroads up to North Conway to find out, I wondered the same thing. Hungry from the trip up, I turned onto Route 302 and scanned the road in search of Luchador, finally spotting the large yellow sign.
Co-owners Katherine and Josh Mitchell opened this second location just under a year ago. The expansion happened on a whim when a real estate agent suggested Katherine “just take a look” at this vacant kitchen along the busy strip of White Mountain highway. She considered the easy parking, the diner-style cafeteria space and large windows. Mitchell knew right away that she could recreate an experience she missed so much: the culture of the in-and-out street taco shops she grew up with in LA.The Mitchells’ first location is in Paris, Maine, where they perfected the menu that’s evolved from years of eating homemade Mexican food, their own taco-shop hopping, and customer feedback.
Here, they offer a menu stripped down to traditional favorites and bestsellers: A salad, burrito bowl, burrito and taco made with your pick of four bases — veggies ($9.50), chicken ($9.50), steak ($11) and carnitas ($10).
I love to see a simple menu. It’s a positive indicator that what’s offered has a good chance of being satisfying and fresh.
Josh Mitchell, who manages the North Conway location, aims to have the line stocked at 11 a.m., not a minute sooner, and the ingredients are replaced throughout the day for optimum freshness. Guacamole, pico de gallo and the sauces are hand-blended multiple times a day as well.
You can personalize your meal with your combination of fillings, toppings and sauces. I recommend opting for sliced pickled red onions. The process of pickling turns the onions a beautiful deep pink color and removes the inherent bitterness, leaving them sweet and crisp.
As for the main meal, burritos are a popular choice. “People love the burritos because they are really big and they’re filling and delicious,” says Katherine Mitchell. “But if you’re open to trying something traditional, try the tacos.”
The quintessential LA-style street taco is a carne asada taco made with marinated and grilled skirt steak topped with fresh onions and cilantro, a choice of homemade red or green salsa and a squeeze of lime juice on a corn tortilla. Traditionally, it does not include cheese, sour cream or lettuce. A set of tacos is served as a trio ($11). This is the taco that inspired the Mitchells to open the shop.
Next come more choices. Cilantro rice or Mexican rice? Red sauce or green sauce? Mild? Spicy? Guac? Pico?
The customer in front of me ordered a burrito without the tortilla, a burrito bowl. The server filled the bowl beyond the container’s reasonable limits and expertly wrestled the contents in with the cover. The server next to him laughed and said, “He always overstuffs the bowls but somehow makes it all fit.”
Look for a colorful display of long-necked glass bottles of Jarritos sodas imported from Mexico, which can be hard to find in the US. Made with real sugar and natural flavors, they are sweet and act as a soothing bubbly palate cleanser to go with a spicy meal.
As I got ready to order, I flipped choices around. Burrito or taco? Traditional or Americano style with cheese or lettuce? How much heat am I looking for today?
To honor the fresh, authentic, LA-style street tacos tucked in this northern mountain town, I took Mitchell’s recommendation.
“When you eat a plain taco with the warm tortilla and you taste the oils and seasonings from the meat and the crunchiness of the onion, and then you can squeeze lime on it … it is just the most wonderful thing,” says Mitchell.
She’s right. This street taco is perfect. The carne asada is flavorful and charred just enough to bring the grilled flavor through. The pico is mixed with juicy tomatoes, citrus and salt, and the tortillas are fresh.
As I enjoyed my taco and looked around, I noticed the posters of luchadores and wondered about the name. “I always liked the wrestlers as a kid,” Mitchell says. “The Luchador masked wrestler is the mascot for this whole thing because it’s a colorful and unique icon of Mexican culture.”
In Mexico, many people watch wrestling matches in the same way someone in the US might watch football, basketball, hockey or baseball. Instead of burgers and fries, viewers snack at the taco trucks that line the arena.
If you need some table talk, try this: Luchadors stay masked in public throughout their entire career, only revealing their face in the final match of their career, if they lose to their arch rival. The winner walks away from the high-stakes matchup with the right to maintain their anonymity and keeps the mask of the exposed and defeated wrestler.
The cafeteria-style eating space is made for a quick-in-and-out meal for all group sizes, and there’s something for everyone here. Plus, special diets are taken seriously as the sauces are now vegan — made without the traditional chicken stock. The rice and beans are also vegan. The corn tortillas are gluten-free.
I highly recommend Luchador. I find that, when a chef loves and respects a cuisine as much as the Mitchells love Mexican food, we benefit. Luchador is fun and easy. The food is fresh and flavorful, and the recipes here evolve with local tastes.
As I drove back to the Seacoast, I realized that I understand my grandfather’s reluctance. We’ve never had Mexican food like this in New Hampshire before. I’m going to have to take him on a little drive up to North Conway so he can try Luchador’s food and find out “what’s so great about a taco” for himself.