If you haven’t been watching Padma Lakshmi’s new series “Taste the Nation” on Hulu, you really should start. The host of Bravo’s popular “Top Chef” moves to something completely different with this series that focuses on food culture in America through the eyes and taste buds of immigrant communities.
In Episode 1, “Burritos on the Border,” she covers restaurants and tortillas and immigration and politics in El Paso, Texas, and its neighbor Juárez, Mexico. The program was fascinating, and it made me crave tacos so hard that we headed straight for MexA Steak Tacos the next day.
It’s never easy to make a choice when I have tacos in mind, but MexA won the draw this time. Its tacos, made in the style of Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city, are built on single, soft, deeply flavorful, fresh-made tortillas topped with thoughtful combinations of ingredients that signal a chef’s creative hand and mind at work in the kitchen.
In the time of the pandemic, I’m not ready for dining in, so we phoned in our order and made a quick run inside to pay and pick up the brown bag. By the time we got home, the food was room temperature, so we beat the clock by ordering inside on a second trip. This time the piping hot meal stayed warm on its trip home.
MexA does a good job of following the state’s Safe at Work rules for restaurants. The server wore black gloves and a black mask, although the credit card reader did require some touching.
Tables inside are widely spaced, with orange cones to encourage social distancing. An outdoor dining area covers part of the rear parking lot, and signs on the doors in both Spanish and English gravely ask us not to come in if we’re feeling sick or have been sick during the past 24 hours. Fair enough!
MexA’s menu offers a choice of seven steak tacos, five other regular-size tacos, and four tacos pirata (“pirate-style” tacos, an oversize Monterrey specialty). Prices are tightly clustered between $3.25 and $4.19 for all the regular-size tacos and $7.39 to $7.89 for the bigger tacos piratas.
If you really don’t want a taco, although this raises the question why you’re at a taco eatery anyway, your choices are limited to a couple of nacho plates ($7.29 to $8) or a steak bowl ($8) or chips with salsa or beans ($3), queso ($5.29) or guacamole ($6.29). A children’s menu offers an abbreviated list of Mexican fare from $1 to $3.99, and a single dessert, MexA rolls ($2.75), offers Nutella or dulce de leche rolled in flour tortillas.
We spread six tacos over two trips and enjoyed them all, although a steak taco on the first day may have suffered from the time spent waiting for us to pick up our meal and get it home: Cubes of once-juicy sirloin in the Norteño steak taco ($4.19) had dried out by the time it got to our table. The meat wasn’t bad but had lost its flavor. The steak cubes were blanketed with dollops of decent guacamole and hot-and-spicy salsa verde and garnished with a few cilantro leaves and grilled onions. The single, white-corn tortilla was very good, big and thick enough to hold it all.
A pork pastor taco with cheese ($3.99) also came on a good-size, flour tortilla pocked with tasty browned spots from the grill. Charred, crispy bits of grilled pork al pastor sat within the tortilla on a bed of melted cheese, topped with a small ration of cilantro and onions and about 10 small cubes of canned pineapple, adding an intriguing sweet fruit element to the flavor mix.
A veggie taco ($3.55) might be a good pick for takeout, as room-temperature service did no harm at all to its harmonic mix of flavors: grilled zucchini dice and medium-hot poblano strips tossed with grilled onions and a few pinto beans, then topped with queso fresco and crema inside a good, thick, white-corn tortilla.
Like all good egg dishes, MexA’s breakfast taco ($3.49) is just as good for lunch or dinner as it is in morning’s light. A thick, tender, corn tortilla was served open-face with a thin layer of pinto beans and melted white cheese topped by a fluffy pillow of scrambled eggs with tiny, tender potato dice on top. A couple of dabs of spicy, red and green salsas that came in small tubs alongside the meal made it just right.
MexA’s signature Lorena’s taco ($8.19), named after the restaurant’s owner Lorena Casas, may have been best of all. Served on a large, flour tortilla almost as large as a small dinner plate, it was lined with melted cheese topped with a generous ration of juicy, tender, grilled sirloin cubes with a mound of guacamole on top that melted into the meat and cheese to create a combination of flavors that got our attention in a good way.
The first lunch came to an affordable $16.13 for four tacos, plus a 20% tip. A return visit cost us a thrifty $13.12 for a large and regular taco and a 25% tip.
MexA Steak Tacos
3701 Lexington Road