Make a stop for excellent Mexican fare to-go
When Martin Quintana first opened Dos Margaritas on North Clinton Street, he had an area to serve as a taqueria of sorts inside the full-service Mexican restaurant.
He hoped customers would stop in to grab a few tacos or take them to go when they didn’t have a lot of time. The counter never took off, but now Quintana’s hopes for a quick-service taco spot have come to fruition just a stone’s throw away on Clinton at The Famous Taco in the corner of the Blue Apple Events Center building.
Famous Taco’s concept is pretty standard with tacos, burritos, tamales, nachos and the like that you order at a counter, mixing and matching what type of meat, rice and beans you want with each. But there are also more standard sit-down Mexican offerings like fajitas offered as specials and patrons can also get beer, wine or margaritas.
By far the most impressive item I had at Famous Taco was the first item listed on the “favorites” sign, the huarache. This large, thick masa dough base was cooked on the griddle so it was crisp on the bottom, but the rest remained soft.
I had mine topped with barbacoa : slow-cooked, barbecued beef : and devoured it with delight because it was easily one of the best huaraches I’ve had. The base not only had the right slightly sweet corn flavor I wanted, the texture of its interior was almost creamy.
There was a thin layer of refried beans on top of the base, along with the tender, stringy beef, cilantro, onions, an abundant amount of queso fresco and a big dollop of sour cream. The only flaw was that the beef was seasoned with a sauce that had more of a tart tomato flavor than a traditional spicy Mexican one.
Not surprisingly, the sope I had at Famous Taco was also stellar. It had the same delicious base and thin layer of beans and meat : carne asada this time : but had shredded iceberg lettuce and diced tomatoes with the queso fresco and cream on top.
The carne asada was very good and made for a great taco, too. It was diced into small bits so it was easy to eat and it had just the right hint of lime and other seasonings to make it lively.
All of Famous Taco’s traditional tacos had double tortillas and all were respectable. But it was the American-style taco that I liked best because its crunchy shell was fried fresh to order. The warm shell had a lot of corn flavor and played well with the cool lettuce and tomatoes. I would not, however, choose to have the American favorite ground beef on mine next time as it, like the barbacoa, had that sort of tart tomato flavor that was not favorable.
My al pastor (seasoned pork) traditional taco was more sweet than spicy and had little bits of pineapple : a nice touch : here and there. I like my al pastor a little zestier, but some salsa fixed that.
Speaking of salsa, you might want to go with some of the creamy white queso dip with your chips if you get them : they are not gratis : because Famous Taco’s salsa was quite spicy. And be very careful if you ask for the hot salsa, which is made in small batches and has a dark color from the many dried chiles used in it. It will light you up.
I had to add some of that regular salsa to my carnitas nachos, too. This platter of chips had plenty of slow-cooked pork roast and that pork was nicely crisped on the flat top to give it more textural flair than the barbacoa. It also had the standard lettuce, tomatoes, refried beans : though not much : tomatoes, jalapenos, guacamole and sour cream. But the jalapenos were very mild and it needed more life that the salsa supplied.
I was also a bit disappointed that the nachos only had shredded cheese and none of that queso sauce. Had I not had some queso left over, I would have been disappointed.
The guacamole was excellent, however, and better than the salsa as a starter.
My chorizo burrito bowl was fantastic thanks to the chorizo. Famous Taco’s ground Mexican sausage had a fiery red color and had that signature sweet-smoky flavor with just a touch of heat. If you are scared of spice, don’t be scared of this chorizo as it was simply perfect.
It was nestled atop a bed of beans and rice on a plate, which had me wondering why it was called a bowl. The beans were topped with melted shredded cheese and it was topped with lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream. Next time I will ask for guacamole and jalapenos because the “bowl” really needed them to make it complete.
The chicken fajita was OK with the best part being the vegetables, which were still snappy. It, too, came on a plate instead of a sizzling platter, which is what one expects when they order a fajita.
The only other chicken I tried was inside a tamale. It, and the masa it was steamed in, was quite dry and not worth ordering.
Famous Taco has self-serve drinks and a self-serve, refillable horchata dispenser. That horchata was excellent and being able to get refills was an unexpected bonus.
The margaritas were lackluster. The rim of my traditional lime was not salted and the flavor was pretty mediocre. The blended mango was tastier, but it also had a bare rim.
The service at Famous Taco was decent but not spectacular. I waited a long time to even order during one visit because the woman at the counter insisted on taking a large takeout order over the phone before waiting on me even though I was there before the phone rang. As a result, the cooks did not start making my order until after the takeout order which meant I had to wait longer than I should have for my food.
Restaurant: The Famous Taco
Address: 4104 N. Clinton St.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer, wine, margaritas
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Tacos (1.99), chips and salsa (2.99), tamales (8.95), nachos (3.79), fajita (6.95 to $7.95 depending on meat)
Rating breakdown: Food: *1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.