February 27, 2013
Last night I had my first experience at El Taco. Yes, first, because I am already sure to return. In fact, my decision was made after merely looking at the menu online. Now that says something. And, the actual experience only confirmed the written portrayal.
The atmosphere was very warm and inviting. The moment I walked in I was met by comforting heat lamps which served to make the enclosed patio a desirable alternative to the indoor portion of the restaurant. Upon entering the main section, I was greeted with the same warmth and pleasantness as the patio. Lively murals of reds and oranges painted the walls, strengthening the feeling of warmth, and TV’s lit each corner of the large room for those inclined to enjoy the various basketball games on that night.
As packed as the restaurant was, I was waited on and seated immediately. I was put at a high table which I shared with a few other guests. (I love restaurants that do this, it makes you feel connected to others. All the while, there’s no concern for privacy because the environment is loud enough so you can’t hear your neighbors’ conversations, but quiet enough so you can easily hear your own.) I then was given a neon orange menu and a token. I looked at the token curiously, not knowing what it was for, and simply determined it must have indicated which server was attending to my table.
The bartender to be our server for the night, a cheerful, enthusiastic guy (but not skeptically or overwhelmingly so, you know those types) who you could tell really liked his job. His energy was simply an outpouring of his genuine inner happiness at work. Seriously. Like the people who work at Trader Joes, with just a smidge more enthusiasm.
Anyway, still waiting for my friend to park I went ahead and ordered a margarita. My server confirmed the Skinny Margarita was in fact good. I’m often skeptical of items labeled “Skinny” or “Light”. He informed me it was actually his margarita of choice (if the bartender says this you know it’s good). His reasoning: it’s natural. My hope exactly. A very simple mix of Herradura Silver, fresh lime juice and agave, it was a nice balance of tart and sweet. My only displeasure was the salt. I love salt rims, but you could tell this was some run-of-the-mill margarita salt, really fine with a faint lime flavor to it. It was an undesirable contrast to the lovely, very natural tasting deliciousness within my glass. Though I believe natural rock salt would have made it that much better, I still recommend the margarita.
About 10 minutes later I noticed one of the employees walk up to a spinning wheel mounted on the wall with numbers on it (like a mini hanging “Price is Right” wheel). She got on a mic and announced, “It’s that time again…” and with the flick of her wrist she sent the wheel spinning till it landed on the number 60. One notch away from “1”, the number printed on my token. Sad…But, it turned out my friend’s number was 60! She won a teal-colored tequila T-shirt. Apparently, she won a tequila shot the last time. An hour later they sent the wheel spinning again and someone at the neighboring table was fortunate enough to win such a prize. What a creative addition to the experience! It heightened the spirits of everyone, bonded us together by drawing our attention to one event even if for a moment. For someone who values community so strongly, I was sold on the restaurant, again. That was twice before the main courses even arrived.
On to the main courses. OUTSTANDING! I knew I wanted desert so I ordered only one taco. I had already decided I was returning, so I didn’t feel the pressure of trying everything that enticed me on this first visit. And since my friend generously offered to share a bite of her selections with me, I was set. I got the Veggie taco. Now, I am a meat lover, so the fact the veggie taco stood out to me speaks volumes. In any case, how could I resist the thought of roasted zucchini, peppers, charred onion, black beans and queso fresco in a flour tortilla? I did not regret it for a single bite. It satisfied every pleasure I have about eating: full flavors, each distinguishable yet blended well with others, while also presenting varied textures. The coarsely julienned al dente zucchini offered a perfect crunch and savory taste in contrast to the sweet black bean puree layering the inside for the plump tortilla. The red peppers offered a juicier and brighter sweetness than the black beans, with the queso rounding off the whole bite with its soft and creamy consistency and dense, but light flavor. The finish, a faint heat which grew slightly and lingered in my mouth, left a wonderful memory and enticing invitation to experience it all over again. And again. And again.
My friend also got the Veggie taco (she’s a regular and always gets it, another good sign) as well as the Roasted Chicken taco. The chicken was accented by cilantro, crema, guacamole, and fried jalapeños in a flour tortilla. I took one bite and my mouth was graced with succulent chicken whose rich flavor, to my surprise, was elevated by the plush flour tortilla. I didn’t know a texture could embellish a flavor like this, but it totally did! It is so easy for chicken to be overcooked, uninspiring or fail to be noteworthy. When someone can take a food as basic as chicken and make it stand out, it elevates my opinion significantly. That makes me stop in my tracks and say, “WOW!” All the flavors and textures of this taco harmonized with and enhanced each other. The fried jalapeños, particularly worthy of note, were oily, but not greasy, a very good and important difference. It was a terrifically salty, luscious experience. One I definitely would like to try again. And in the end, I decided the Roast Chicken was even better than the Veggie.
Finally, dessert J It was a really hard choice to make between the Warm Chocolate Brownie Cake with añejo caramel, vanilla crema and spicy Marcona almonds, and the Fried Apple Pie in an empanada crust doused in dulce de leche and paired with cinnamon ice cream. I decided on the brownie mostly because I was in the mood for chocolate and it was also my friend’s preference. It hit the spot. Nevertheless, I’m still very eager to go back and try the pie! When I saw my brownie come out the presentation was enough to make my mouth water. In the center of my plate was a good sized brownie, perhaps this is the reason for calling it a “cake” – brownie in content, cake in size. Beneath it spread a sea of thick añejo caramel with a sprinkling of spice-drizzled almonds floating alongside. Atop my cocoa island was a generous dollop of vanilla crema. As I plunged my dessert spoon into the grand chocolate abyss, it penetrated a slightly crisp outer layer before it sank into the fudgy center. As I took my first bite, I discovered the brownie was as ideal in consistency as I could have hoped: dense in texture and warm in temperature. Yes, it had obviously just left the oven — the way all brownies ought to be enjoyed. I really liked it, though must say I found it a little too sweet by itself. The very sugary tasting caramel was also a bit much. However, the thick and light crema with a hint of sour flavor was a helpful, even necessary, pairing. Additionally, the almonds, with a kick of heat and a smoky flavor which billowed in the back of the throat, mingled well with the brownie. However, I wished they had only been a garnish and not inside the brownie, as well. After a few bites I went ahead and sprinkled some salt over the whole dish. I highly recommend this. The salt cut the sweetness and brought out the flavors. Overall, it was a very enjoyable dessert. If I were to make it myself, I would cut the almonds inside and, as much as I love caramel, I’d remove it, leaving the simple and satisfying pairing of brownie and crema.
With its creative and diverse cuisine, vibrant atmosphere, and pleasing service, El Taco provides a party for your senses that will keep you coming back for more!