Lito Saldaña (left) and his youngest brother, Cesar, who works at 5 Tacos as a cook. Courtesy: 5 Tacos and Beers

5 Tacos and Beers
1175 Solano Ave. (at Stannage Avenue), Albany

If you visit 5 Tacos and Beers on a Monday, you’ll notice the Albany restaurant’s menu features tacos with nopales (cactus), portobello mushrooms, zucchini, corn, or other seasonal veggies. But the traditional beef, pork, fish, and chicken choices all have the day off. That’s because owner Lito Saldaña is so committed to the global “Meatless Monday” movement that he has crafted an entire vegan menu.

“I can make good plant-based tacos,” he told Nosh, “And I don’t need to mimic meat using artificial ingredients.” Monday’s “ceviche” is made from jicama, for example. And the (nut milk) cheeses are from The Butcher’s Son. “I don’t support big corporations,” says Saldaña. “We make everything in house and all our produce comes from local farms.”

His culinary stance — which includes use of organic produce whenever possible and a ban on artificial flavors, hormones, or antibiotics, as well as anything canned or microwaved — was shaped during childhood. Until Saldaña was 19, he lived with his family in a tiny town in Jalisco, Mexico. At the age of 6, he started working on the family farm, where they grew everything they ate, including tomatoes, corn, beans and melons. The family also grew and sold thousands of pounds of tomatillos, which they sent to Guadalajara. After completing 6th grade, he left school to help his father. 

“My dad was my best friend,” said Saldaña. “He taught me everything. What I do now, it’s all because of him. Dad didn’t like milk or cheese, so we grew up almost vegan.” On the rare occasions that the family ate meat, they went hunting for rabbit or quail. “Once in a while,” concedes Saldaña, “Dad would go to the meat seller, and buy two kilos for 10 people, so we would each eat a few tiny bites of meat. Dad was a role model for me. He was very strong, but he didn’t eat much meat. He taught us to eat healthy.”

A sampling of tacos from a recent Meatless Monday at 5 Tacos and Beers: cauliflower al pastor, fresh grilled cactus, and potatoes and carrots and portobello mushroom sautéed with white wine. Credit: Anna Mindess

Even though he credits his mother for being a great cook, Chef Saldaña didn’t learn his kitchen skills from her. The 10 children in his family split their jobs down traditional lines. The boys worked the farm, and the girls helped their mother cook. In 1984, his two older brothers came to California. When brother Jorge opened Cancun Taqueria on Allston Way in 1990 and asked his younger brother to come and help, Lito Saldaña ended up in the kitchen and finally learned to cook.

“I cook like my mom used to, which may be different from other Mexican restaurants,” he says. “We only add salt, pepper, garlic, onions, fresh oregano, cilantro, tomato and tomatillo. We also marinate the meat.”

Saldaña used that philosophy to build Cocina Poblana, a Bay Area fine dining Mexican mini-chain that once had locations in Jack London Square, Emeryville and San Francisco. Those restaurants shuttered around eight years ago after struggling to find a foothold in the local food scene. He found more success with Los Moles, a more casual spot that serves eight different types of housemade mole sauce on a menu of burritos, tacos and quesadillas. That restaurant now has locations in Emeryville, El Cerrito and San Rafael.

5 Tacos and Beers opened mid-pandemic with a generous outdoor seating area. Credit: Anna Mindess

5 Tacos and Beers is a departure from Los Moles, with a rotating weekly menu of five tacos and entrees like chicken birria, baby back pork ribs and fish in habanero mole sauce. Every dish is gluten free except for two of its five desserts. (Those two dishes are prepared in a separate fryer to avoid cross-contamination.)

The restaurant, which opened on Solano Avenue in the summer of 2020 with an eye-catching wall of succulents and an inviting outdoor seating area, is adaptable to heat and cold, with both large umbrellas, and heaters. Tuesday and Friday nights feature festive music by live bands. Another customer favorite is the guacamole and chips, especially when enjoyed with a glass of sangria, a shot from more than three dozen tequilas, creative craft cocktails by Tania Saldaña (the chef’s daughter) and Yecenia Rodriguez (his sister-in-law) or a beer from their extensive list.

In keeping with Saldaña’s strong commitment to local food and drink vendors, the 25 beers on the menu are all made locally, from Fort Bragg to Monterey. House wines are made for him by Ironwood Cellars, a family business in Lodi. The house tequila, Don Lito, is made for him by a family in Jalisco.

But why, one may wonder, did he choose the name “5 Tacos and Beers”? “Five is a magic number for me,” Saldaña said, “because every time I do something with a five, it turns out amazing.” Here’s an example: “When I worked with my brother, at Cancun, even though we served Mexican food, Cinco de Mayo was one of our slowest days, because it was just a taqueria, and most people choose to go to a fancier restaurant where they can have margaritas.”

“I asked my brother if I could make a special menu, where everything would cost $5,” Saldaña said. “We announced that on flyers and posters, decorated with Mexican colors. I advertised for 2-3 weeks, and that Cinco de Mayo we made about four times as much money as on a regular day.” It was only the first of a series of successful $5 specials that Saldaña organized for various holidays.

“Since that day, five was magic to me,” says Saldaña. “I’m the fifth child in my family too.” So, it was only natural for the chef to name his new restaurant with his favorite number, and feature specials when ordering five, 10, or 15 tacos.

Saldaña also said that the number 5 figures prominently in the 5 Tacos restaurant space. The spot at 1175 Solano Ave., which formerly housed Little Star Pizza and Casa del Sol, has a window with five glass panes, has five barrel light fixtures over the bar, and groups of five tables.

His fans in Walnut Creek are anxiously waiting for him to open a second 5 Taco and Beers in downtown Walnut Creek on Locust Street. It was supposed to open back in 2020, but then came the pandemic, plus a slew of unforeseen architectural hurdles. Saldaña thinks it probably won’t open until May 2022, but he’s not worried. After all, 5 Tacos and Beers in Walnut Creek will be his lucky restaurant No. 5.

“I do think numbers have meaning,” he said. This interest in numbers began when Saldaña’s father died in a vehicle collision, he said. “I started putting numbers together and found many things that connected my father to the number seven, including that he died on December 27th  and was the seventh kid in his family.”

The senior Saldaña’s spirit lives on in his son’s restaurant and philosophy of life. “I read a lot about veganism now,” he says. “It’s not just me. Berkeley is such a healthy place.”

Saldaña’s wife, Lourdes Rodriguez, hosts a Spanish language radio program on KIQI AM. Once a week, the chef comes on to talk about food and eating. “My philosophy of life is if you eat healthy, you will feel better and be happy and then the people around you will be happy too,” Saldaña said.

“On her show, I talk about how to eat healthy, find good restaurants, I give recipes, or ideas of how to cook.  Even though I’m a restaurant-owner, I encourage listeners to eat at home and ask their market to start selling organic or more natural meats. We have the power, if we ask for it.”

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Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.