As a kid, going on shopping trips with my parents, Bellingham consisted of Bellis Fair… and that’s about it. This was what it meant when they said we were “going to the states.” We’d eat at the food court, I’d go to the arcade, and I usually ended up with a new pair of shoes. Lately, I’ve been trying to explore a little more of this little Washington town. To be fair, it’s the biggest city in Whatcom County, so that’s something.
But again, even as an adult going on shopping trips with friends, we’d inevitably end up at Denny’s for breakfast. A few years ago, we started going to Five Guys for burgers. And then we tried Avenue Bread near on James Street, or we’d have brunch at Homeskillet. Most recently, we paid a visit to California Tacos and Fresh Juices, not far up the road from Bellis Fair.
California Tacos and Fresh Juices is in a part of Bellingham I’ve never visited, even though it’s literally a block away from where I’ve frequented. It’s tucked away behind the Best Buy, a few blocks up Meridian from Bellis Fair, in a little complex called Whatcom Plaza. From the outside, it really doesn’t look like much. Parking typically isn’t an issue.
The restaurant is laid out as one long row, so you’re technically entering through the rear when you come in from the parking lot. The cash register where you place you order is at the other end. The menu is sprawled out above the kitchen and stretches some seven panels wide. It’ll take you at least a couple minutes to soak it all in.
The “traditional plates” are more of a substantial meal. And then you’ve got tacos, quesadillas, burritos, tortas, nachos, combos, and “futured [sic] plates.” The natural juices and smoothies are a little on the pricey side, at around $7, and they have an assortment of beer, wine, and margaritas too.
Agua Fresca: Free!
Most places will give you water for free. California Tacos does that too: you can see the water and ice machine on the right. But next to that is a dispenser with some daily made agua fresca. I’m not sure how frequently they swap out the flavors, but what we got on the day of our visit was akin to Kool-Aid. But hey, it’s free.
Chicken Mole: $10.99
Two pieces of chicken smothered in our homemade mole sauce served with rice and beans with your choice of flour or corn tortillas
When I ordered this, I was expecting mole negro (dark mole). So, I was a little surprised when I was greeted with this reddish-brownish sauce. The two boneless pieces of chicken were juicy and tender, and the sauce had just enough of a subtle sweetness to it. And they were certainly generous with the sauce too.
I’m not the biggest fan of refried beans, to be honest, so that was neither here nor there. Similarly, the rice is just fine and nothing to write home about. Not pictured was the small basket with three corn tortillas. This was probably too much food for lunch, but we wanted to try it.
Super Taco (Al Pastor): $2.50 each
Rotisserie pork, beans, onion, cilantro, cheese, and avocado slices
Now, it’s clear enough that California Tacos and Fresh Juices isn’t trying to be super special here. It’s humble food at a humble price, so it would be unfair to compare it to somewhere like La Lupita Taco & Mezcal in Los Cabos, Mexico. The al pastor packed plenty of flavor and the pineapple adds just enough sweetness.
However, because the tacos arrive on single tortillas, and the al pastor is a little too juicy, my taco didn’t have much structural integrity. It broke through. Really tasty though.
Super Taco (Cabeza): $2.50 each
Beef cheek, beans, onion, cilantro, cheese, and avocado slices
I’ve always been attracted to these “throwaway” cuts of meat, especially when they’re done right. That’s why I usually gravitate toward the lengua (beef tongue) and, in this case, the cabeza (beef cheek). The beef was fall apart tender, and since it isn’t nearly as juicy as the al pastor, this taco held together just fine. I will say that the al pastor packed a lot more flavor though.
Both super tacos really came loaded with a lot of meat. I’m not sure if you’d get the same quantity with a regular taco, so we’ll need to come back to investigate.
Fish Taco: $3.00 each
Grilled fresh tilapia, Mexican coleslaw, onion, and mayo
Look at the size of that fish! Granted, it’s just tilapia, but that’s still a lot of fish for this fish taco. The Mexican coleslaw wasn’t especially “Mexican,” but this would make for a good lighter option. That said, I prefer fried fish tacos over grilled fish tacos in general.
One thing that I really liked about the old Dona Cata on Victoria Drive in Vancouver, and the same thing that I really enjoy about Sal y Limon on Kingsway, is the expansive salsa bar. You get a full range of heat with a variety of flavors. Sadly, that’s not the case here. You get only two salsa — red or green — and they come in squirt bottles. Neither is especially spicy, so you may need to make use of the hot sauce on your table.
All in all, though, I’m quite pleased with California Tacos and Fresh Juices. The prices, especially for the tacos themselves, are very fair. It’s the kind of place that knows what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not. Having the open trays for dirty dishware under the menu, next to the napkins and salsa, is a little off-putting though. And I want more salsas.
California Tacos and Fresh Juices is located at #108-4260 Cordata Parkway in Bellingham, Washington. That’s in Whatcom Plaza, kitty corner to Whatcom Community College. Check their website for more information, including the full menu and hours. The total cost of our lunch, including tax and tip, came to just under $30. We probably could have gotten away with less food, but, you know, tacos!