I have dirty blond hair and blue eyes and am probably about as gringo as you can get. But I do have a weakness for Mexican food. I absolutely love rice and beans and anything made with tortillas. So when I was asked to write about Real Taco, I jumped at the chance like a Mexican jumping beans jumps at whatever causes Mexican jumping beans to jump.
Apparently FM didn’t trust me to be able to evaluate the authenticity of Real Taco by myself, so I was assigned a co-writer, Patricio, from Mexico. Good call, guys.
I meet Patricio for the first time on the steps of Real Taco. He is smoking a Pall Mall. As he finishes up, I watch at least 10 people walk in ahead of us to order. I am impatient—not to mention cold—and rush inside to order as soon as he is done.
What we encounter when we enter are throngs of confused, hungry people in a logjam in front of the counter. At Noch’s people know to line up on the right side of the pillar and wait for their food on the left. The Wrap basically herds customers into line. At Real Taco there is not yet place to line up. Ordering is sheer pandemonium. Patricio gets the steak quesadilla combo (which includes chips, salsa and a drink), which is nicknamed, for what reason I do not know, the Real Relax ($6.95). I order the 25-ounce chicken burrito ($4.95). Without an FM expense account, I decide not to order a drink.
We sit down, wait for our food, and discuss the décor. Patricio comments that bright colors and multiple mirrors make the place look like a Discovery Zone. I concur. I comment on the load-bearing pillar in the middle of the dining area that seems to have been decorated with spray-painted pieces of scrap metal. It looks like something exploded at the steel mill. I ask Patricio if this type of decoration is common practice in Mexico. He ignores me.
As we await our food, Patricio chats up several of the employees of Real Taco. I follow him over. Despite six-plus years of Spanish instruction, I am utterly lost. Patricio later informs me they talked about owner Joel Espinoza’s Mexican heritage— he’s from Sinaloa, an area famous for the vacation spot Mazatlán. It is also established that the owner is a “nice guy.” Back at the table, Patricio comments on the high incidence of cute girls behind the counter. I cannot disagree. “One hundred percent authentic,” he says. “Straight from Monterrey.”
My burrito comes quickly and disappears deliciously. But 25 ounces, at least for me, does not a meal make. Overall, I find the burrito excellent: The chicken is juicy and the beans satisfying—I will never go to The Wrap for a burrito again, though they still have me hooked on their Buffalo Chicken Wrap. My taste buds are satisfied, but my stomach is not. Granted, I am a big eater, but I did not expect to have to order two meals. Now the 40-ounce burrito, which I passed on earlier, does not look so daunting. I discuss this with Patricio. “When I think of a 40-ounce burrito,” he observes, “I can’t help but picture a burrito the size of a Colt-45.” This gives me a wonderful idea: the 40-40 club. And Barry Bonds is not yet a member. I feel simultaneously giddy and nauseated.
As I get up to order my second meal of the night, Patricio finally gets his quesadillas. He is impressed, telling me that “it is unlikely you’ll find anything like this north of the border.” I think he is talking about the Mexican border, but I am not sure. Patricio continues to rave about the quesadillas, praising the quality of the pork meat in particular. It is no small wonder, he tells me, that the owner, the chef and the exquisite counter-girls all recommend quesadillas above everything else on the menu.
My second “meal” of the night is 2 Real Tacos ($5.95). For some reason or another, tacos only come in pairs. This, Patricio and I agree, is a fundamental flaw in Real Taco’s business plan. If Real Taco wants to steal the late-night crowds from Tommy’s and Noch’s, then an à la carte taco for under $3 is an absolute must.
The tacos live up to their high billing. The steak taco is far superior to the chicken taco, but both are excellent. I am impressed by the corn tortillas, an authentic touch only offered with the tacos. (All of the tortillas for the other items are made from flour.) Patricio is not so easily thrilled. He commends Real Taco’s efforts to be authentic (an Aug. 9 Crimson article on Real Taco mentions that Espinoza “takes considerable pride in the authenticity of his recipes, ingredients and cooking methods”) but gives the tortillas an overall thumbs down. They taste, feel and fall apart just like ones tortillas from the store, he says. “They’re bought in bulk. That is why they have to use two tortillas per taco instead of just one; they don’t hold up like the real thing.” I am indifferent. I like the taste of the corn tortillas and bask in my cultural culinary ignorance.
I snack on Patricio’s chips. They are brown and do not look like Tostitos, so I assume that they are authentic. The salsa, especially the delightfully spicy salsa verde, is excellent. As I speak and eat at the same time, a chip rotates vertically in my mouth and I bite down. The chip does not give. The roof of my mouth continues to hurt as I write this article a day later. I swear out loud in Spanish, demonstrating how my ability to offend people crosses cultural barriers.
Once the piercing pain in the roof of my mouth subsides, Patricio and I continue our discussion. He is disappointed with Real Taco’s use of sour cream. Apparently real Mexicans don’t use sour cream on their tacos at all. When I express surprise he proffers an explanation: “Damn gringos don’t know the difference, because they’re so used to Tex-Mex and Taco Bell chains.” I grimace, slightly offended, but he says the sour cream replacement is some sort of offense to him personally, or at least to his cultural heritage. “There are creams that we use for tacos,” he says, “but replacing them with sour cream is like using ketchup instead of A-1 sauce. It just doesn’t cut it.”
Patricio also comments on the Real Slim line of entrées at Real Taco. Real Slim tacos and burritos do not contain any cheese and substitute lowfat yogurt for sour cream. Patricio is not amused. “Lowfat yogurt?” he rants. “Are you kidding? Here’s a tip: If you’re trying to slim down, don’t eat a 40-ounce burrito!”
Patricio and I become bored of discussing things relevant to the story we have been asked to write and count the number of times the word “real” is used on the takeout menu. The answer is 42.
Patricio observes that, despite the quality of the food, it is still “real” expensive.
I can’t seem to find the bathroom (it is broken at the moment). This sucks because I have to go “real” bad.
Neither of us can find a garbage can. That the garbage can is not conspicuously placed seems to me to be “real” risky.
Some random kid picks up his jacket to leave and a bottle of red wine drops from the pocket, smashing to the floor. He is probably a first-year. He looks “real” stupid. The poor girl who comes over with a broom and a dustpan to clean it up looks “real” upset when she sees the amount of unnecessary work that this rube has caused her. Two lovers stare into eachother’s eyes as the red wine seeps under their table, soaking their jackets and bags. They are oblivious. Their shoes are going to be “real” sticky.
Patricio and I ignore the ongoing gong show and arrive at the final verdict. Real Taco is a fledgling business and is bound to have its bugs that need to be worked out. It seems to be on the right track, as far as I am concerned. Patricio is not so forgiving. According to him, Real Taco falls short in its attempt at authenticity. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s good,” he says. “But it’s too similar to Chipotle and (I’m stretching here) Taco Bell.” Despite its agreed lack of authenticity (I have no choice but to agree with Patricio; what do I know?), Patricio and I decide that Real Taco deserves an 8 out of 10. He might go back for the counter girls, and I’ll drop in for the sour cream, but either way, we’ll be there.