Photo by Frankie Steele

February 5, 2014

We wrestle and win at El Taco Luchador

OK, Taco Luchador, we get the “taco” part. But what the heck is a “luchador”? Simple, señoras y señores! The luchador is a skilled artisan, a practitioner of lucha libre (“free fight”), the manly art of self-defense. In other words, luchadores are Mexican pro wrestlers. But trust me on this, luche libre makes the overweight, steroid-pumped thespians of the WWE look like a bunch of slow-moving sissies.

Smaller, lighter and far more lithe than the Norteamericano pros, the luchadores are acrobats and artists who leap high, twist and turn in the air and pounce on their opponents in a writhing dance that’s not always bound by the ropes of the ring. And they do it wearing crazy masks!

OK, fine. But where’s the connection between Mexican rasslin’ and the new, hugely popular taqueria that just opened on the Baxter Avenue strip?

Quite a few lucha libre masks (“máscaras”) adorn the bright, salsa verde and salsa rojo-colored walls of El Taco Luchador, as do folk-art paintings of luchadores ready to get down. And the folks behind the counters stand ready to wrestle up some very serious Mexican street food for you, too.

Frankly, the quality of the food and the mood should come as no surprise when we consider that this is the latest venture of Fernando and Cristina Martinez and Fernando’s cousin Yaniel, who’ve hit a string of homeruns with Havana Rumba and Mojito, plus their current lineup: Guaca Mole, Mussel & Burger Bar, El Taco Luchador and, coming soon, The Place Downstairs, where top young chef Ethan Ray will preside over an upscale, innovative dining room in Mussel & Burger Bar’s basement.

El Taco Luchador is the latest tenant in the tiny old shotgun house that has been home to the short-lived Potstickers, 14K Cupcakes and Lil Cheezers. There’s room for just six four-top tables, and the place is usually slammed, so I advise arriving early; or if the joint is packed, see if you can’t rely upon the kindness of strangers to share a table.

Counter service is quick and competent, and the extensive chalkboard menu overhead is simple enough. It features nine tacos, seven tortas and a half-dozen chips-and-salsa combos and sides. It’s also plenty cheap, with tacos priced at $2 to $2.50 and the hefty tortas at $7 or $8. Order, pay up, and before you know it, your food is whisked to your table (assuming you were lucky enough to get one) in colorful Woolworth lunch counter-style plastic baskets.

The tacos are small, each based on a single soft corn tortilla, but they’re packed with goodies, so two or three should make a meal.

The chicken mole taco, menu item No. 5 ($2), is loaded with simple, tender shredded chicken cloaked in a sweet, pale-brown mole sauce with corn kernels, diced poblano peppers and bits of tangy cotija cheese mixed in; it’s garnished with crema and a little fresh cilantro. “There could’ve been more cilantro,” muttered Mary. “Cilantro isn’t too expensive, guys! C’mon! Give your customers more cilantro!” You heard it here first.

A baja fish taco, No. 8 ($2.75), started with flaky white fish, fried in a thick but crisp beer batter, dressed with a tasty chipotle aioli and house-pickled red cabbage.

A carnitas taco, No. 4 ($2.50), may have been best of all, although it has real competition in the veggie taco, No. 8 ($2). Carnitas is double-cooked pork, marinated, roasted then fried, pulled into tender shreds and piled high with dabs of guacamole and bits of mild queso fresco, green tomatillo salsa and house-pickled onion. The veggie taco is amazing, a symphonic flavor combo of refried black beans, guacamole, queso fresco, roasted corn and poblanos, crema and pico de gallo, plus a counter-intuitive addition that may trace to the Martinez’s Cuban heritage: chunks of sweet, smoky fried plantain.

The veggie mix was so awe-inspiring that I inquired as to its availability on a torta. No hay problemo, señor! It’s actually Torta No. 17 ($7), omitted from the chalkboard, apparently, because they ran out of room. It was a plant-based delight, sweet and tart and hot and seductively smoky, piled high on a fresh, crusty, lozenge-shaped bolillo roll.

Guacamole ($4) was just as good as the iconic original at the eponymous Guaca Mole, fresh-made and chunky, perfect in its simplicity, served with warm, fresh chips.

The Mexico City street-food treat Elote Callejero ($2.50) is the twin of a favorite Mussel & Burger Bar dish, corn on the cob on a stick, spread with mayo, cotija cheese and chile powder and baked until it sizzles.

Mole fries ($3), the Mexican equivalent of French-Canadian poutine, are addictive: A pile of standard-issue fries are elevated with a hefty dollop of sweet chocolate-spice mole sauce striped with snow-white crema and topped with, yes, Mary, a scant ration of cilantro.

With a Jarritos Tamarindo ($3) Mexican soft drink, a solo lunch was $10.07, plus a couple bucks for the tip jar. On a return visit, two of us dramatically over-indulged but still could only punch the toll up to $24.65, plus a $5 tip.