Nick's Picks: Lulu Taqueria
Lulu Taqueria’s origin story can be traced back to a gas station burrito—not one that was prepackaged in the frozen food cooler or under a heat lamp next to rotating hot dogs, but a masterpiece that was prepared fresh using a tried and true recipe.
Explaining Lulu’s timeline would be impossible without first mentioning Itacate, a family-run Mexican fast-food restaurant that operates within a gas station on Buffalo Road. Founded in 2011, Itacate, which now also has a standalone location in Penfield, is operated by Jose and Lourdes (Lulu) Abarca, both Mexican immigrants from Acapulco and Monterrey, respectively. The duo serves authentic Mexican dishes with homemade salsas and traditionally prepared ingredients. Despite its unlikely location, Itacate quickly earned a reputation as hidden treasure, especially within the culinary community.
As word-of-mouth and buzz spread about Itacate, Mike Pavone, a then developing local chef, checked the place out for himself. Before long, Pavone, who had classic culinary training at MCC under Gerry Brinkman from Atlas Eats, and with Jay Speranza at Tony D’s, found himself working part-time at Itacate during the summer of 2012.
“I slowly started to prep with Lulu,” says Pavone. “It was this amazing experience because I had spent the past four or five years learning the classic French technique that’s present in culinary school and in most kitchens, then I go and cook with a woman from Mexico and I almost have to forget everything that I’ve learned because it’s a completely different way of cooking.”
Pavone continued learning from Lulu for about a year while helping the Abarcas open their Penfield location. With classic French and newly-learned Mexican techniques under his belt, Pavone left Rochester for Los Angeles in the beginning of 2014 to further his culinary career. In Los Angeles, he worked at the Tasting Kitchen, a Mediterranean-focused restaurant, while immersing himself in the local street food scene.
“I lived in Culver City and there were taco trucks everywhere, says Pavone. “That really opened my eyes to how amazing a street taco can be, it’s just a few simple ingredients but it’s amazing.”
Pavone returned to Rochester in 2016 and, in early 2018, joined a team of four made up of Jose Abarca; Mira Kosic, who initially ran the bar program; Cameron Sformo, a developer; and Anthony Harlow, a chef who moved from Los Angeles; to open Lulu’s Taqueria in Fairport.
Odes to Itacate’s authentic Mexican flavors are found on Lulu’s menu with burritos, ceviche, and an array of tacos on soft corn tortillas. The most popular option is the carnitas taco, which brings juicy, tender, slow-roasted pork shoulder together with fresh avocado and salsa verde. West-coast inspired dishes like a massive fried chicken sandwich topped with jalapeno coleslaw and spicy mayo, as well as the Cali Dog—a bacon wrapped Hebrew National with peppers, onions, and yuzi aioli—also dot the menu. Pavone describes the overall theme of the menu as “L.A. street food.”
To complement its fare, Lulu serves a variety of craft cocktails that utilize tequila and mezcal.
With a flowing, airy outdoor dining room next to the Erie Canal and bright furniture decorated with tropical designs, Lulu’s space matches its easy-going menu.
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