Every Saturday — sometimes at 11:45 a.m., sometimes a little after noon — Corrye Lopez pulls her black Honda SUV up alongside the In & Out Market and begins unpacking. Her daughter, mother-in-law and sister-in-law jump out to join her, grabbing a cooler, some baskets and boxes of kitchen implements, as if they're setting up for a family cookout in the park.
Unlike the neighbors who frequent the In & Out, though, the Lopezes are not here to grab provisions. Instead, they head over to their usual corner spot, next to the soda fountain and alongside the ATM, to set up their taco stand.
Lopez's in-laws heat up the electric griddle and fill the portable food warmer with steaming mounds of pork, beef and chicken. Her daughter decorates the booth with brightly colored wicker baskets and silk flowers while Lopez directs and sets up the accouterments, chatting with the line of regulars that began to form even before she arrived. Almost always, Stevie Wonder is playing in the background.
These are Saturday afternoons at the In & Out, a quintessential corner bodega that sits at the intersection of Wise and Bellevue in Richmond Heights and has become the surprising home to one of the city's most delicious dining secrets. Nicknamed "The Brodega" after the Mr. T painting that hangs over the cash register, the market has been around for 40-plus years, though Sabor Si has only been a part of the picture for the past few months.
After tabling her idea of starting a food truck, Lopez approached the market owners about setting up a taco stand in the corner of the market, counter service only. For Lopez, the arrangement would be a way to test the restaurant business waters before diving in head-first. For the market's owners, her presence would mean increased foot traffic from a crowd that's all but guaranteed to walk out with a six-pack of Negra Modelo. The lines (at times stretching ten-deep, with waits approaching fifteen minutes just to order), show that the plan is working even better than Lopez anticipated.
Some days, Sabor Si's success gets a little overwhelming for Lopez. She's not ready to quit her day job just yet — in fact, she may never be. A longtime pre-school and special education teacher, Lopez loves the kids at school like her own, but still needs to decompress after long days spent chasing after them. Nearly every night after work, Lopez comes home and heads to the kitchen to, in her words, "zen out" over the stove, perfecting her techniques and experimenting with recipes. She wanted to share the fruits of her labor with the community, so she set up Sabor Si for fun, with the intention of taking things slowly and seeing where things go. That's why she operates the taco stand only one day a week, and even then only from roughly noon until 3 p.m.
Though her authentic food (and impeccable Spanish) suggest otherwise, Lopez is not from Mexico. She fell in love with the cuisine through her husband and his extended family, who hail from a small town outside of Mexico City. On family trips to her husband's homeland, Lopez was taken by the food, particularly the street taco culture, and tried to recreate it back home in St. Louis.
She's nailed it. Her signature street tacos, served two to an order, are made with soft flour tortillas, griddled right in front of you. She overstuffs them with either beef or chicken. The former is made from tender, marinated flank steak that has the dual zing of lime juice and black pepper; the latter is succulent pulled chicken spiked with warm chiles and garlic. Lopez dresses them to specification, but suggests just a sprinkle of white onion and fresh cilantro. She layers two, sometimes three, tortillas together because one can't contain the juice from the meat, though I wonder who'd complain about getting their sleeves messy for something this wonderful.
Sabor Si's vegetarian taco consists of marinated mushrooms laden with so much garlic it's laughable — in the sense that it makes you chuckle with glee. Lopez sautées them on the griddle to order so that the pungent umami steam perfumes the entire market. The plump portabellas, too, are as satisfying as any of her meat offerings.
You'll get laughed out of the market if you tell that to fans of her chorizo, though. Members of this loyal cohort tend to be the ones who arrive the earliest, and it's clear why. Lopez's version of the Mexican pork sausage is rich, fatty and flavored with smoky paprika, chiles and garlic. Though flour is the default on most of her tacos, she will put the chorizo in corn tortillas on request and even suggests this option to first-timers. The spicy meat drippings soak into the sweet corn tortillas for such a perfect experience, you won't want any other condiments.
Lopez diverges from the Mexican playbook with her Korean-style pork tacos, which could compete with anything served out of a trendy L.A. food truck. Tender pork belly is glazed with soy, ginger, garlic and chili, which forms a salty-sweet caramelized coating. The meat is placed in crunchy corn tortillas and dressed with tangy Asian-style slaw to balance the richness. It's not hot, though — unless you ask Lopez to dress the dish with fresh jalapeno slices for a sweat-inducing kick.
The beauty of Lopez's laidback operation is that she can add new things to her menu on a whim. The "Dirty Pig," her most recent addition, is a traditional pork dish that she's been playing around with for a while. She seasons the meat, wraps it in banana leaves and slow-cooks it to the point that it falls apart like pulled pork. The result is vibrant orange-hued meat reminiscent of a tangy, chile-spiked al pastor. You can order it on anything, though I recommend having her spread it liberally over the black bean enchilada. The pork-fat laden refried beans pack a heat that creeps up on you and serve as a beautiful backdrop for the pork's sweet spice.
Not one to limit herself, Lopez has been experimenting with handmade naan as an alternate edible canvas. A preschool teacher at heart, she offers these pillow-soft flatbreads with simple melted cheese as a kid-friendly option, or you can smother them with any of her other toppings. If you don't seize this opportunity to make chorizo-covered cheesy bread, by god, something is wrong with you.
Lopez calls this build-your-own naan option "The Queen," as in "You're the queen, so you get to do what you want." But really, there is only one queen at the In & Out — and now that the word is out, her kingdom can only get bigger.
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- The walk-up stand features some incredible tacos.