Nothing stood out about the restaurant. At least from the outside looking in. Not that I expected it to. A glitzy restaurant oozing gold with crystal chandeliers twisting in the air conditioning would have been cause for concern. When it comes to a taco restaurant, simpler is almost always unequivocally better.
This particular spot came highly recommended. By that, I mean every guidebook and national write-up covering the Tucson food scene pointed to it as being the go-to spot for the best tacos in town. Strangely, in the six months of calling Tucson home, no locals had suggested as much. Everyone had their own hand-picked and tastebud-selected spot. Most were on the outskirts of town or tucked away in unassuming stretches of desert, customers spilling out of the door like chunks of beef falling out of an overly stuffed tortilla.
In the time since I started calling the Old Pueblo home, I had sampled more than my share of tacos. I had a lot of catching up to do, so I wasted little time checking off restaurants mentioned on the “must-visit” lists. The particular location I stood in front of, holding its own on Fourth Avenue, had evaded me, for no particular reason other than I wanted to try the rest before I tried, as the countless articles proclaimed, “the best.”
The owner and head chef of the restaurant, apparently, held some influence on the Tucson food scene. Writers and interviewers sprinkled her name throughout articles, and her bio mentioned appearances on major networks and competitions. The taco stand grilling up tripe I’d visited earlier in the week didn’t have that kind of clout (unless a packed house of patrons where the only English speakers were myself and the two Border Patrol agents counted).
Inside, the hostess greeted me and steered me through the ample open tables to a small, wobbly option in desperate need of a steadying book of matches under its short leg, all while splitting the difference between interior and patio. There weren’t many patrons at the time of my visit, so inspecting their orders from afar didn’t prove a viable option. Not that one can tell all that much when it comes to tacos. Unlike the Midwestern taco nights I had grown up with, which consisted of neon-yellow hard-shelled tacos, bright iceberg lettuce, shredded cheese dubiously called “Mexican” on the packaging, and, on a good night, Chi-Chi’s ground beef taco seasoning (on off nights the family had to make due with seasoning made by the good folks inside Meijer or Kroger test kitchens). Even if served cold, the unholy taco colors were bright enough to burn retinas.
I blindly selected my first two off the menu. The prices were high. Much higher than the other Tucson taco destinations. Paying for name and location, I assumed the tacos would, at the very least, scratch my hunger itch. With burgers, the size of the patty or amount of beef is often listed right on the menu. A quarter pounder. Eight ounces of Angus ground beef. It’s easy enough to know what to expect. Smaller burgers are listed as sliders, so you know to order more. With tacos, well, it’s a crap shoot. Two might satisfy the hungriest of guests, or the dual tacos might end up snake eyes and force you into several additional orders.
After an extended wait and a drink order placed, my plate of tacos came out. Snake eyes. They were small. Slider small, but without the affectionate nickname. No mention of poco taco or taco pequeño. Definitely paying for name and location. If their mission was to force multiple orders, the establishment succeeded. As the waitress left to call out my second order I grabbed hold of the first taco, which proceeded to split and fall apart. The steak flopped through the dried flour tortilla like inmates out a trap door. Looking over the carnage on my plate, I examined the splintered remains of my tortilla then took a bite. Dry. Cold. Old.
No utensils on the table, I’d have to wait to scoop up the remains, so I turned my deflating attention to the fish taco and corn tortilla. The corn managed to hold together, although with the rubbery texture I couldn’t completely discount the idea that some kind of adhesive substance had been mixed with the lard and masa. The dominant texture and taste of the corn tortilla masked what little fish it held.
Finishing off the intact taco in two bites, I asked the waitress for a fork when she returned with the two new tacos I suddenly wished I hadn’t ordered. Not that I wasn’t still hungry, because I absolutely was. Burning through the entire menu would not have proven difficult with the miniature slider-sized helpings, but my money would be better spent elsewhere. Somewhere that didn’t have the blogs and the articles and the top 10 lists fawning over them.
After paying the nearly $50 tab, I left, disgruntled more with the hype than the cost. In the over six years since the initial visit, I stopped off for one additional tasting, leaving once again with similar results. And yet, despite the growing brand awareness, the growing TV appearances, the growing side projects of the restaurant and D-list celebrity chef, nobody in town has yet to recommend or speak glowingly of the establishment to me.
It’s why it’s always better to listen to locals, rather than lists.