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The backstory: Husband and wife Daniel and Leticia Hernandez believe everything happens for a reason. Daniel’s career in construction ended abruptly after he fell off a roof and broke his spine. He and Leticia weren’t sure what their next step would be. After some time, they decided to open a food cart, Cali Fresh, serving “fine Mexican cuisine with a California twist.” Both have Guadalajaran roots and Daniel grew up in California after moving there from Mexico at the age of 10. Leticia’s mom, who runs Mercado Miramar and operates her own food cart, convinced Daniel and Leticia to apply for the food cart permit contest. After three years of success with Cali Fresh, the two opened a brick-and-mortar location in Fitchburg, Tapatios Cocina Mexicana.
The vibe: With Daniel’s background in construction, it was inevitable that he would build out most of the space, Leticia says. What she called a “white box” has transformed into a colorful, intimate eatery decorated with paintings by Leticia and Daniel. You can tell these two put heart and soul into the space.
The menu: All the meats at Tapatios are grilled over an open fire, giving them an extra smoky flavor, says Daniel. They started off with a small menu but have been adding items since they opened to include all the Mexican restaurant favorites, including fajitas, deep-fried or grilled shrimp tacos, enchiladas, mole and other traditional offerings. “Tapatios” translates to something or someone related to Guadalajara, and the two offer some dishes inspired by the region, including Jalisco-style barbacoa, as well as a few specials, including the carne en su jugo (flank steak in tomatillo sauce alongside pinto beans and bacon) and tortas ahogadas (a Jalisco-style sandwich).
The must-try: Tapatios’ sopes dish is unlike many you’ll find. It has a base of lightly fried, handmade cornmeal masa, and it’s topped with cheese, beans, cilantro, onion and queso fresco.
The bottom line: If you love Cali Fresh — which the couple plan to continue operating in the summer — Tapatios might need to become your winter go-to for a classic Mexican meal.
2990 Cahill Main #100, Fitchburg, 467-7400
Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine.