Steve Varnes has been a good friend of mine for a long time. We’ve played music together sporadically for over a decade and his band, The Deluxe Trio, kills it every Wednesday at Callaghan’s. I occasionally get to sit in with these monsters. On the surface, Steve and I are nothing alike. But when you dig a little deeper there are more similarities than he’d care to admit.

We’re both avid Tom Waits and John Prine fans. We both know our share of off-color jokes. And most importantly, we have a similar passion for food. I know, I know. Everyone is passionate about food. Steve and I just place a higher importance on the same things. And the main thing is authenticity. So when Steve talks about food, I listen.

“You have to review these guys,” I recently heard him say. He was speaking of San Jose #1 in Tillman’s Corner. He rattled on and on about what makes this strip-mall taqueria so special, so I had to investigate. For a Mexican investigation, I needed Agent 549.

San Jose #1 can be a bit of a challenge to find if you don’t have GPS capability. It’s over by the Winn-Dixie. There’s a lingerie shop next door, and you can even get a phone card two doors down. This is a place you must hear about. There isn’t much on the Internet that can point you in its direction. I like that. And when we entered the facility, I knew we were in for an authentic experience.

We walked into a fairly busy weeknight and sat ourselves at an open two-top. In broken English we were asked what we wanted to drink. I chose a Jarritos grapefruit soda. Agent 549 politely asked for water. “We no have water. We out.” I swear this actually happened. They told us they were out of water, so it was a strawberry Jarritos for 549. I knew this was going to get good.

With Mexican food, I have found the bigger the language barrier, the better the food. I once convinced a Brooklyn restaurant to feed the band at 5:15 a.m. and it was amazing. I was hoping for a similar experience in Tillman’s Corner. So we fumbled with the menu at San Jose #1 and here is what we came up with.

I was here for the tacos ($1.75 each). These beauties are served on a double layer of corn tortillas and adorned with fresh cilantro and chopped cucumbers. The waitress brought a three-sided caddy with a red sauce, a green sauce and pickled onions with peppers. Things were getting serious.

The first taco I tried was the wonderful pork belly. These are more like cracklings with a certain crunchiness to the meat. A touch of the verde sauce enhanced the flavor, and you can bet I will be having one of these again.

Taco al pastor is a pork favorite of mine. For this one I decided to try the onion-pepper mix. I placed a spoonful on the succulent white meat and dug in for a wonderful bite. This bite was followed by a stinging sensation, leading me to believe the peppers were habanero or better. It almost ruined my meal. Almost. I enjoy a strong amount of heat, but was surprised by this one. Once the flames settled, I could notice how good it really was.

Straight-up chorizo was ground sausage, as was the chorizo and beef mixture. For these I played it safe with the red sauce and found them enjoyable.

Agent 549 had a chicken burrito. I thought this would be boring, but it was anything but. The sizable burrito came with Mexican yellow rice and beans. It looked like your everyday entrée, but tasted like a four-star burrito. The chicken was perfectly done and the juiciness blew my mind when I stole a bite.

Chips and salsa were not complimentary, so we ordered some. The chips were good, but we literally paid for a handful. The salsa was lacking. You may think I’m complaining. I didn’t care one bit. The tacos and burrito completely overshadowed any shortcoming the menu may have presented.

If you’d like to try your hand at preparing your own tacos, San Jose sells all of their meats by the pound. It’s a bit of a grocery store and butcher shop (carniceria) with a few more things than just meat. This place is the real deal. It’s cash only. There were no to-go menus, no itemized receipts, no fuss. We ate, we paid and we got out.

Authentic ethnic food can be hard to find. This was no Americanized version of anything, and it was exactly what I needed. I’m not saying you should try San Jose #1. I’m saying you have to try it. If you’re friends with Steve Varnes, you know what I’m talking about when he gets that gleam in his eye. Whether it’s about music, a good joke or something culinary, I listen closely. I always benefit from those conversations. Thanks for the tip, Steve. Give me a call. Maybe we can discuss the stock market.

Taqueria y Carniceria San Jose #1
5676 Tillman’s Corner Parkway, Suite C
Tillman’s Corner, Alabama 36619