When we survey the delectable array of Mexican, Tex-Mex and other south-of-the-border eateries that grace our town these days, it’s easy to forget that we haven’t always been so richly blessed.
I’m sure I’m not the only Baby Boomer who can still remember when Mexican food in Louisville meant chili, with a canned tamale dropped in the bowl upon request.
It was only in the 1970s that we started to see a little more culinary diversity in Tumbleweed, the short-lived Por Que No on Bardstown Road, Chico’s in Hikes Point, and the original Tumbleweed. And it took until the 1990s before the Mexican and Central American diaspora started bringing us more of the real deal, ranging from authentic taquerias where it helps to know a few words of Spanish, to the more entrepreneurial Tex-Mex mini-chains, which thrive through quality fare tuned to Norteamericano tastes.
Recently, though, new-wave Mexican spots including El Mariachi in Lyndon, The Ville Taqueria in St. Matthews and Con Huevos in Clifton are setting a new standard, with inviting, bilingual restaurants that offer real Mexican food made by Mexican people — without compromises.
Let’s celebrate the latest arrival in this admirable genre: MexA Steak Tacos (yes, they do spell it like that) offers a short but interesting menu based almost entirely on grilled steak tacos made in the fashion of Monterrey, Mexico, MexA owner Lorena Casas’ hometown.
Monterrey, a fair-size Mexican city, is located inland, not too far south of Laredo, Texas, so it doesn’t surprise me that folks in this region are just about as gaga over beef as their neighbors to the north.
MexA makes stylish use of a storefront next door to Asahi Japanese, just in the road from Lotsa Pasta. It’s thoughtfully decorated with pretty dark-gray-and-white tiles and rough wood, filled with wooden tables and sturdy wooden chairs. But the main thing you’re likely to notice when you walk in is an oversize stainless grill about the size of a pool table, where a crew of chefs stays busy shredding and grilling strips of sirloin steak just about as fast as happy customers keep eating it up.
We looked around, tried a taco each and a dish of guacamole and chips, and gently moaned, “Whoa.” We went back up for more tacos. And then another round. And some frijoles and chips. I even thought about a Nutella-in-tortilla dessert taco, but just couldn’t. It’s good, seriously all good. I am not kidding about this.
The menu, as I said, is not overly long, and it’s largely based on just-grilled beef and house-made tortillas. But there’s still plenty of choice. Seven beef-based tacos are tightly clustered in price between $4.15 and $4.40; a trio of larger Tacos Piratas (“like quesadillas, but better”) are $8.15-$8.25. You can get a stack bowl over rice or a massive plate of MexA Nachos for $8, and if you want to avoid the beef thing entirely, a veggie taco is $3.25.
Everything is served in disposable service ware. Plastic utensils and paper napkins sit in galvanized buckets on the tables. Food comes in cardboard trays; fountain drinks in plastic cups.
We couldn’t eat it all on one trip, although we would have liked to. Here’s a quick look at the goodies we tried. I’m pretty sure we’ll be going back to sample the rest.
Tortillas are cooked to order, and they are excellent. The fried chips made from them are among the best I have ever eaten. They’re thick, crunchy and grease-free, and they make a great vehicle for all four combos: salsa ($3), chunky, fresh guacamole ($5), poblano queso ($4.50) or juicy, tender pinto beans ($3).
The beef is very good, too. It’s shoveled into tacos in small bite-size chunks, every piece offering a good mixture of charred edges and juicy pink medium-rare center.
The Sonora taco ($4.40) lays down juicy bits of sirloin on a base of queso and tender pinto beans, garnished with a banana pepper salsa and cubes of cucumber. It had a bit of heat kick from the salsa, and the cucumbers, small cubes that seemed to have been grilled, reminded us of cactus.
The street taco ($4.15) is traditional taqueria-style, with plenty of that juicy grilled sirloin laid on an open-face corn tortilla and dressed with abundant chopped onion and cilantro and a tiny wedge of avocado. The meat was good as ever, but we couldn’t get a lot of cilantro flavor.
One of the Tacos Piratas, the Caramelo ($8.25) started with a crunchy, caramelized round of grilled cheese on an oversize flour tortilla; topped it with sirloin; added pintos, chopped onions and cilantro, strips of roasted poblano peppers, and tangy crema. It was a flavor symphony, but a small challenge to roll, pick up and eat.
I lost track of what we were paying for our many orders and didn’t really care, but it’s an affordable repast. With a Jarritos Tamarindo Mexican soft drink, all that food couldn’t have come to more than $30 or so, plus a 25 percent tip as my way of saying “Muy bueno!”