First Look: The Original El Taco

It's been a long time since I visited a restaurant that had much of a wait. But I drove to The Original El Taco (1186 N. Highland Ave., 404-873-4656) three times before I actually got a table.

During my first two visits, there were 40-minute waits, so I left. On the third try, I called ahead as we were leaving and put Wayne's name on the waiting list. That way, we only had a 20-minute wait when we arrived.

What's all the excitement about? This is the successor to Sala, the gourmet Mexican spot that Fifth Group Restaurants closed after its sale to another restaurant group fell through. Fifth Group then entered a partnership with Shaun Doty, owner-chef of Shaun's, to develop this new spot, which appears to be an overnight hit.

What's the attraction? Three things come to mind. First, rather than attempting gourmet Mexican, El Taco is primarily Tex-Mex. Second, it's inexpensive and even offers a kids' menu. Third, it's a "scene" kind of place. The once elegant décor has been kitsched-up with bright paint and a cartoonish mural. The bar was packed every time I went by, to the extent I wondered if the 40-minute waits were somehow engineered to sell margaritas. It's definitely fun if you drink.

You can't fault the restaurant for its cheap eats. In 20-plus years of reviewing restaurants, I've never heard so many complaints about a downturn in business. The Bush legacy includes not only a dip in many diners' incomes but a significant increase in restaurant costs. So, it's almost shocking to see El Taco, which is a large space, doing so well.

The food is a more complicated story. As I've explained before, I lived in Houston two years and the better part of a year in Mexico. I love Mexican food, but I have never liked Tex-Mex cooking very much. (I also like creative Southwestern cooking in the Santa Fe style.)

Most Tex-Mex cooking is artless, compared to the true Mexican cooking that inspires it. It is brutally seasoned, usually, with nondescript "chili powders." Everything is hidden behind a veil of lettuce and tasteless chopped tomatoes. Every plate is filled with greasy refried beans and dry yellow rice. And everything – everything! – is overcooked, apparently so that it can be eaten by the toothless and without fear of encountering a singular flavor.

That's not the case at El Taco. Doty's creations are more interesting than the average Tex-Mex and the food generally has bold flavor, but it is not adventurous in any respect.

We started with wood-grilled skewered beef in a chimichurri sauce with smoked jalapeno oil. This is actually more Argentine than Mexican. Flavor was decent and the beef was tender, but it's not a dish that's going to excite the average diner.

We also ordered a couple of side dishes as starters, including elote – grilled corn in lime-spiked mayo. Here, the corn is removed from the cob, as it was at Sala. While that's not altogether uncommon in Mexico, I prefer it on the cob. Of course, that makes sharing too intimate. (Holy Taco and the Bone Garden serve the messier on-the-cob version.) Our other side was wood-grilled scallions with lime juice and sea salt – decent but the scallions themselves were pretty anemic. (Nuevo Laredo Cantina usually serves fatter scallions.)

Tacos were the best part of the meal. They range in price from $2.95 to $3.95 and are served alone. The good news is that they are oversized, mainly served in flour tortillas. I tried one filled with chile relleno – slices of poblano pepper stuffed with cheese and refried beans, topped with a garlic crema. I couldn't resist one made with crispy pork belly – this year's favorite meat, apparently – along with cabbage, mint, New Mexico chilies and chipotle mayo. I want many more of both. There's also fried tilapia, carnitas, grilled or fried chicken, red chili steak, and chorizo.

I was surprised to see tlayuda on the menu. Actually, it's called "Mexican pizza" here and I didn't even connect it with the popular street food from Oaxaca until it arrived at the table. Here, the tlayuda is built on a big circle of corn-meal flatbread, according to the menu. It is grilled until black in spots and has compelling smoky flavor – at first.

Rapidly, though, the flatbread foundation of our tlayuda, featuring carnitas, grew wet and as tough as plastic. It would bend but not break or tear. Even a serrated knife would not easily cut it. By the final piece, I could not even chew the crust and just ate the ingredients off the top.

The ingredients, besides the carnitas, included refried black beans, lettuce, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, avocado, radishes, crema, two Mexican cheeses, hot peppers and sunflower sprouts. These ingredients are not cooked and the profusion of flavors was delightful, even if their foundation was not. If you don't want the carnitas, you can order it vegetarian-style or with chicken or chorizo.

We also tried "the short stack," not pancakes but corn tortillas layered with red and green chili, refried beans and Mexican cheese, topped with a fried egg. This seemed, at first glance, to embody all the qualities I dislike about Tex-Mex cooking, but I was pleasantly surprised by the assertive flavors of the chili. The fried egg added creamy body to the dish.

For dessert, we split the fried apple pie, which tasted rather like a churro stuffed with diced apples and a bit of caramel sauce, powdered with sugar and served with a big scoop of cinnamon ice cream. Not bad. There's also flan available and a "Mexican Coke Float." Coke floats are everywhere these days. This one's made with vanilla ice cream and a genuine super-sweet Mexican co'cola.

There was no mariachi band on the premises.

Hungry for Cuban?

The loss of Kool Korners and Havana Sandwich shop has intown lovers of Cuban food distraught. Calm down. (The son of the owner of Kool Korners reports in the comments section of our blog – Omnivoreatl.com – that they will be opening a new restaurant in Vestevia Hills, just outside Birmingham.)

Las Palmeras (368 Fifth St., 404-872-0846) has been open about 15 years and continues to serve the best Cuban food inside the city limits. The masitas de puerco, slow-cooked chunks of pork with a crispy exterior awash in garlicky, oniony, lemony mojo, is my favorite dish here. Go!

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