Dining: The small stuff punks Taco Punk

Life’s little frustrating moments: You’re watching an earnest worker trying to put together your lunch. He fumbles. You ask for this. He gives you that. Oops — a bit of something just hit the floor.

This is taking longer than it should, and things don’t get better. You want to offer advice. Then you want to walk around the end of the counter and help. But eventually, your order gets down to the cash register, where the cashier is glaring at you for holding up the line.

You end up paying the wrong price (but there’s a 50-50 chance the error will be in your favor). Finally you get to your table and discover that what you got was not quite what you asked for. There is no chance in the world you will go through the ordeal again in an effort to fix it.

Aagghh!

The first time this happened at Taco Punk, shortly after it opened in January, in Toast on Market’s former quarters, I wrote it off as newbie jitters and deferred a review. After repeated visits, though, I’m concerned that Chef Gabe Sowder’s venture is having problems scaling up from its start as a popular street-taco stand that achieved well-deserved popularity at the Douglass Boulevard farmers market and elsewhere.

By all rights, Sowder should have the chops to make this thing go. A former sous chef at 610 Magnolia, he brings to this venture the kind of culinary creativity and deep understanding of flavors that make 610 great. Pacific cod gets a “secret chili rub.” Smoked beef is braised in artisanal beer with grilled onions and peppers. Crispy duck carnitas comes with roasted pumpkin and grilled corn salsa. The Taj-Ma-Hell offers curried lamb leg, tamarind and onion chutney and cucumber-mint yogurt, all on a taco!

This could be memorable stuff, and better still, it’s all done with a serious commitment to locavore produce and meats and sustainably sourced seafood and fish. Indeed, some local foodies, seduced by Sowder’s skills and the hipster NuLu vibe, are virtually in a swoon over this recent arrival.

But I’m having a hard time joining in. Yes, Sowder can do great things with food, but too-often clueless counter service and wildly variable food and prep quality signal problems. When it’s good, it’s very good, but the sum of all its parts too often adds up to “Meh.”

There are about a dozen taco options, some vegetarian, ranging from $3.25 to $4.50 for a single taco or $8.95 to $12.95 for a Punk Platter, which comes with two tacos, a side, chips and salsa with your pick of garnishes — assuming you can successfully communicate what you want, which is not always a sure thing in my experience. Other “light bites” include ceviche ($4.95 small, $8.95 large), soups, salad, chips, queso, guac and more. Fountain drinks, wine and beer are available.

Soft-style tacos are available on flour or handmade corn tortillas, but I was profoundly disappointed by the latter, a soft, crumbly pad that resembled uncooked pie crust and fell apart when I tried to pick up my taco.

When you get past that, though, Sowder’s kitchen skills shine. We’ve been smitten by the Yucatecan-style fish taco ($4.50 single, $12.95 platter), sweet fresh cod, dry-rubbed and grilled, not breaded and fried. Grilled adobo chicken ($3.75/$9.95), spice-marinated and grilled, passed muster, as did black-bean-and-cheese ($3.25/$8.95). In fact, anything this place does with black beans scores big. Barbeercoa beef ($3.75/$9.95), long-braised in Goose Island beer into a falling-apart mass, was deeply flavored but a little too salty, and seasonal veggie mole ($3.75/$9.95) was fruity and sweet. Tortilla soup ($3.95/$5.95) didn’t ring my chimes, but the creamy, light guacamole ($2) was fine.

I hope it gets better. There is a lot to like here, not to mention splendid salsas that range in heat rating from one star for mild to six for “Gabe’s Drain Cleaner.”

Taco Punk
736 E. Market St. • 584-8226
tacopunk.com
Rating: 81

It’s fish fry time!
Yes, we know Louisville is the inland epicenter for fried white fish at any time of year, but consumption ramps up further during Lent, when many Roman Catholic churches and a few Episcopal churches offer festive, fun fish dinners on Fridays.

The fishy fun begins Friday! Check a Catholic church near you, or click the Archdiocese of Louisville website, archlou.org, which in past years has published a canonical list during Lent.

I’m heading out to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Anchorage (1206 Maple Lane, stlukesanchorage.org) though, where my buddies in the church’s men’s group, the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, will be frying fish — and more — Fridays from 6-8 p.m. through the end of March.

Want something a little more fancy than a fish sandwich? Try their sautéed tilapia filet with white wine sauce over a bed of wild rice accompanied by roasted vegetables with a balsamic reduction. A fish sandwich with two sides, hushpuppies and a drink is only $7.75. A half pound of boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce is $7.50. The tilapia dinner with a drink is $9.75.