A Publication of WTVP

Small in size, big in flavor

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Ron Johnson |

Cuco’s Tacos is serving up authentic Mexican eats and drinks, on Cinco de Mayo and beyond

At Cuco’s Tacos, owner Alin Aranda relies on her roots.

That means stressing two important things: authentic recipes of her native Mexico, and the insistent advice of her wise mother.

“My mom always told me, ‘When you make food, do it with patience and do it right,’” Aranda says.

Altogether, that makes for one of Peoria’s most distinct menus, which you can find written in chalk inside the modest but delicious Cuco’s Taco’s, 2626 N. Sheridan Road.

Aranda, 38, and other members of her family arrived in Peoria more than two decades ago. After years of working in an office, she decided to change careers by leaning on the dishes she learned long ago from her mother. Two years ago, she bought Cuco’s Tacos and quickly created a buzz among local foodies as well as the Hispanic community.

“We are 100% Mexican cuisine,” she said.

Going bonkers on birria

Her biggest claim to fame is birria pizza, a trendy favorite nationally but not found in many places in central Illinois.

Birria, which is more or less a stew featuring a meat of choice, enjoyed its own spate of fame in recent times. Cuco’s Tacos, which mostly makes a beef birria, uses the broth to sauté and fry a 12-inch tortilla, which in turn is layered with gobs of cheese and meat, then topped with a second tortilla and griddled to crispiness. On the side comes a dish of birria, to dip the slices, enough for two or three eaters.

‘It’s hard to explain the spices because there’s so many … in the Birria … we use probably more than 20’ — Alin Aranda

“The first time I put birria on Facebook, it went crazy, went viral, more than 4,000 views and shares,” Aranda said. “We got super busy. We couldn’t answer the phone for three to four days. We had a line outside.”

Chef Daniel Carachuri prepares a birria pizza
Chef Daniel Carachuri prepares a birria pizza

The spice is right

Aranda grew up in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, known as the “Footwear Capital of the World.”

Whereas recipes in northern Mexico get more Americanized the closer one draws to the Rio Grande, central Mexico uses complex and layered spices — the secrets of which Aranda does not generally share, especially for her birria.

“It’s hard to explain the spices because there’s so many,” said Aranda. “Some people in some other states, they might use, like, 10 different spices in the birria. But we use probably more than 20.” The menu also includes goat. “I love goat,” she said — in soup or tacos.

Another authentic dish is menudo, a soup made with tripe, or cow’s stomach. It’s a weekend favorite.

“The reason why we open at 9 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays: A lot of Hispanics like to have the menudo after they go on a night of fun,” Aranda said with a laugh. “The menudo is a good way to relieve the hangover. I sell a lot of menudo every morning Saturdays and Sundays.”

Other Mexican-authentic meats include lengua (tongue) and cabeza (braised beef head). But there also are familiar favorites (beef, chicken, pork) on familiar dishes (tacos, burritos, quesadillas). Aranda provides several salsas, including her secret variety — hot, but flavorful, in a special bottle — available only by request.

Another uncommon offering is a beverage that tastes and feels almost like a dessert. The horchata is a Mexican drink made of rice water and flavored to your liking, such as with cinnamon or strawberry cream. Leticia Aranda, the owner’s sister and one of seven relatives on the nine-employee payroll, says customers find horchata addictive.

“A lot of people, once they taste it, keep asking for it,” she said.

Mi madre knows best

There’s not much room inside the small storefront, so only a handful of diners can take a seat to eat. But the eatery does brisk takeout business, Alin Aranda says.

One of the many return customers is Aranda’s mother, who lives nearby. She is one of Cuco’s Tacos biggest fans.

 A smiling Aranda says, “I owe everything to her.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]