Issue December 21, 2012

Taste Bud: Gourmet tacos still trending

There was a time when I would have laughed at you for saying the phrase “gourmet taco,” but darned if that particular cuisine isn’t currently trending. Still. And I like it.

We’ve already got several restaurants in town focusing or somewhat focusing on these culinary wonders involving stuff being packed into or plopped onto a soft corn or flour tortilla, not to mention countless restaurants offering the simple-yet-elegant creations on their menus alongside other fare.

I mean, really, the taco is such a simple thing: It’s just meat, cheese and lettuce in a bread-like shell. OK, that’s how we used to view the taco. It’s all changed now.

Down in NuLu there’s Taco Punk, which allows you to pick your toppings, from red cabbage to pickled onions to freshly chopped jalapeno peppers (mmm). I haven’t been wholly impressed by the Punk (I find the tacos to be a bit dry and overpriced), but I will give it mad props for the Gabe’s Drain Cleaner salsa. Yowza.

There’s also the rolling gourmet taco shop, Holy Mole, which has a limited menu (hey, it’s in a van) but never fails to disappoint in terms of creativity and freshness. I was impressed by the chicken mole taco, and I’ve heard the soft shell crab with a jicama chipotle slaw and avocado salsa is a must-try.

Yeah, these are not your father’s tacos. Earlier this year, Chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche told PBS.org, “Tacos are the perfect food because they can be made so many ways …” He is so right; you can put just about anything in a taco shell.

Heck, even Yum! Brands subsidiary Taco Bell, which is usually considered to be at the bottom of the (fast) food chain when it comes to restaurants, tried to get into the act earlier this year with its “gourmet-inspired” menu designed by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia. Geez, even the rice at Taco Bell now has cilantro in it. (Well, it has something green in it, at least.)

The two latest gourmet taco spots I’ve tried are Guaca Mole Cocina Mexicana, launched back in the spring by the folks who also gave us Havana Rumba and Mojito, and Manny & Merle, a new hipster hangout at Second and Main.

At Guaca Mole, I ordered what I figured would be a pretty basic taco platter at lunchtime. For $7, I got two carnitas tacos and a side of rice and refried black beans. Doesn’t sound like a ton of food, but I was stuffed, especially after my buddy Joe and I added chips and the three house salsas that come with them for $1.99. My tacos were piled with marinated pork, guacamole, onions, cilantro and what appeared to be pickled red cabbage. Delicious.

A few days later, my girlfriend Cynthia and I ventured downtown to Manny & Merle, which inhabits the former and newly renovated site that used to be Zena’s, on the advice of a friend. It provided more evidence as to why gourmet tacos are still trending. Holy cow.

We tried several tacos, but the two best for my money were the Pollo Rojo and the Arrachera. The former blends shredded chicken with lettuce, tomatoes, “queso fresco” and a delicious cilantro-citrus sauce. The Arrachera contains flank steak, guacamole, red onion and cilantro. Oh, and for good measure, all tacos are served with lime. It was quite a feast.

“I think the trend in this area is that you see people focusing more on quality,” said Manny & Merle general manager Michael Polevchak. “People know what good food is now, and that’s what they are going for. They want an experience.”

Polevchak points out that Manny & Merle doesn’t have a freezer on the premises — the meats are fresh and marinated daily. You’re just not going to get that at Taco Bell.

Of course, that’s not exactly the same thing, is it? I’ve argued for years that Taco Bell isn’t really Mexican food, that it is its own food group. Perhaps the new trend of gourmet tacos is doing the same thing, except in a much better way.