The diminishing of the American diner’s disposable income has posed a significant challenge for restaurateurs, particularly those who specialize in fine-dining fare. In a downtrodden economy, Americans are less willing to spend their hard-earned money on meals that cost almost as much as a utilities payment. Instead, the dining consumer has increasingly turned toward a more casual dining experience. This dining trend has prompted enterprising chefs to overhaul and upgrade comfort food favorites.
In recent years, restaurateurs have transformed burgers from a ubiquitous fast-food favorite into a gourmet casual experience showcasing pricier, premium meat patties and sundry upscale ingredients. Similarly, pizzaioli are expressing themselves artistically on their crusty canvasses with creative ingredients heretofore not available on pizza. Even such humble comfort food favorites as mac-and-cheese and the grilled cheese sandwich have metamorphosed from plain and boring to glorious and inventive. Though these gourmet versions of foodstuff from humble beginnings might cost just a bit more, they’re not nearly as steep as the fine-dining experience diners might have opted for in better times.
It stands to reason that the previously pedestrian taco would eventually evolve, too. So says PBS who took the pulse of esteemed chefs and culinary professionals across the country to discern their insight on the latest food trends. One of those trends is gourmet tacos. It just make sense. Tacos appeal to value-conscious consumers and have become a comfort food that transcends socioeconomic strata. Best of all, they can easily be elevated and made more interesting with high-quality and ingenious ingredients.
Tacos can no longer be stereotyped as the crunchy hard-shelled envelope encasing ground mystery meat, lettuce and shredded cheese popularized across the fruited plain by Taco Bell. Pioneering chefs–including some of the nation’s most influential culinary minds–have uplifted the formerly low-brow, yet much loved taco. It has become an inspired and diverse platform of culinary inspiration–a platform for the fusion of seemingly disparate culinary traditions. Think Asia meets Mexico. Think naan instead of corn taco shells.
To traditionalists, this tinkering with the sacrosanct taco might be considered sacrilege, but to progressive diners, these new-age tacos are an idea whose time has come. Food Network glitterati Bobby Flay claims “anything you like to eat can be wrapped in a taco,” and it seems significant effort is being put forward to validate his contention. Korean tacos (Mexican corn tortillas stuffed with bulgogi and kimchee) took Los Angeles by storm in the past few years. They compete throughout LA county with more than a thousand “loncheras,” the food trucks which have elevated the Mexican taco to rarefied air using traditional and indigenous ingredients in creative combinations.
The common elements defining the modern gourmet taco are bold, fresh ingredients and contrasting yet amazingly complementary flavors and textures. You certainly can’t typecast gourmet tacos as the flavorless, hard-shelled ilk proffered by Taco Bell and its brethren. For Americans who grew up noshing on such prosaic mediocrity, the revelation that tacos can be gourmet and delicious is more than a pleasant surprise. It’s a life-altering new way of eating.
Arguably, Albuquerque’s very best practitioner of the gourmet taco is the aptly named Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila which launched in January, 2012 in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district, widely recognized as the city’s most diverse dining destination. Zacatecas is the brainchild of chef Mark Kiffin, the James Beard Foundation‘s “Best Chef in the Southwest” for 2005. Kiffin didn’t set out to establish a gourmet taqueria, but to honor the authentic culinary traditions of the Zacatecas region of Mexico, a favorite vacation destination for the well-traveled chef.
The Zacatecas region is renowned for wide and varied culinary traditions which have been refined over time, melding strong and diverse pre-Columbian and Spanish cultural and culinary influences. It’s the recipes culled from those influences that Kiffin’s taqueria and tequila bar showcases brilliantly with an array of made-to-order gourmet tacos made from fresh (and soft as all authentic Mexican tortillas are) corn tortillas filled with sundry meat or seafood options as well as organic garnishes.
Tacos may be the name on the marquee, but under the direction of a Zacatecas-born chef, the kitchen offers a full-service lunch and dinner menu reminiscent of the menus at Chicago’s Frontera Grill, excelsior nonpareil in the art of Mexican cookery. The menu includes a number of familiar, but upscaled antojitos (appetizers), eight different “Zaca Tacos” unlike any you’ll find at Taco Bell, sumptuous sopas and ensaladas (soups and salads), magnificent mariscos (seafood) and enticing entradas (entrees).
Zacatecas’ vibrant blue exterior is very conspicuous among its staid neighbors along the Nob Hill stretch of Central Avenue. Its capacious open dining room is equally eye-catching with one wall showcasing hand-made papier-mâché skulls which appear to be looking over the dining public, perhaps in envy over the delicious fare. Dia de los muertos (day of the dead) decor festoons a handmade fifteen-foot zinc bar (featuring more than 70 kinds of tequilas). The south-facing dining room is bathed in sunlight courtesy of large patio windows that overlook the hustle and bustle of Central Avenue. The milieu bespeaks of fun and liveliness.
Shortly after you’re seated, a complimentary basket of Zacatecas Totopos (triangular tortilla chips made from nixtamalized corn masa) with two salsas are delivered to your table. Neither are especially piquant, but both offer distinctive and interesting flavor profiles. The tomatillo-chipotle salsa has a lemony-herbaceous-grassy tang tinged with smoky pepper qualities. The fire-roasted Guajillo salsa is more fruity-piquant and is punctuated with just a hint of cumin.
While the Antojitos menu may list familiar starters such as quesadillas, empanadas, chile rellenos, chicharrones and queso fundido, none are made in the familiar and overdone ways to which we’ve grown accustomed. The relleno, for example, is an Anaheim chile engorged with canela (Mexican cinnamon) duck confit, goat cheese and a Manchamantel canela sauce. Spanish speakers will recognize Manchamantel as a combination of the words “mancha” which means “stain” and “mantel” which means “tablecloth.” In essence, the “tablecloth staining” sauce is a classic fruit-and-chile (probably Ancho chile) sauce with a flavor profile that includes piquancy and sweetness with a smattering of canela. The magnificent melange of flavors, textures and ingredients make this a superb starter.
If you’re still having problems wrapping your mind around the concept of gourmet tacos, fret not. It’s more important that you wrap your hands around the tacos themselves. That process is facilitated at Zacatecas which piles ingredients generously on two warm, soft tortillas redolent with the comforting aroma of fresh, sweet corn. Your perusal of the eight taco offerings (two per order) on the menu might rock your world. There are no hard-shelled tacos available, nor will you find any stuffed with ground beef. Even those non-ground beef tacos you might have had elsewhere aren’t made the way you might remember them. Carne asada tacos, for example, are made with grilled marinated rib eye steak, fire-roasted Guajillo salsa, queso fresco and cilantro.
Every taco on the menu is completely antithetical to the Taco Bell type tacos. If you’re an aficionado of fine swine, try the Cochinita de Pibil tacos, constructed of delicately shredded pork which is expertly wrapped then slow braised in banana leaves and chiles then topped with a tomatillo-chipotle salsa, escabeche, queso fresco and cilantro. The banana leaves seal in moisture and flavor while infusing the contents with a subtle, fresh grassy fragrance. The pork is shredded into tender tendrils of moist deliciousness enlivened by a tangy-fiery salsa. The queso fresco serves as a foil to break down the acids of the salsa and chile. These tacos are outstanding!
In Mexico the term chicharonnes can mean anything from the fried pork rinds-cracklings with which New Mexicans are well acquainted and chitterling-like pork skin. The latter has been known to make grown gastronomists quake with fear. The Tacos de Chicharron at Zacatecas are made from crispy pork belly and are very much reminiscent of the nurturing-comforting chicharrones made so well throughout the Land of Enchantment. These tacos are an adventure in contrasting flavors, textures and even temperatures with crispy, warm chicharrones ameliorated with caramelized onions, pleasantly piquant salsa de arbol and crisp, cool julienne apples. Every ingredient goes very well together to tantalize your taste buds.
More than at perhaps any restaurant in Albuquerque, the Zacatecas menu is about the concordant blending of ingredients and sauces to create unique flavor profiles. If the resultant blending wasn’t so delicious, you might wonder if the chef has a mad scientist complex. Take the pork loin entrada (entrée). It’s not enough to sheathe it in a pepita crust, the pork loin is topped with a manchamantel sauce and an onion-habanero marmalade with a side of poblano hominy (not posole). The chef can experiment with flavor combinations all he wants as long as every entrée is this good!
Sometimes, however, there can be too much of a good thing. Such may be the case with the Aztec NY Steak which certainly starts off on the right track. The right track is a steak crusted with a magnificent Ancho chile-chocolate rub. The unnecessary additive is a blackened tomatillo sauce “lagoon” around the steak which, though delicious, is a bit redundant, wholly unnecessary. The borracho beans aren’t necessary either. They’re too pedestrian for a steak of good quality. A very nice plus is a mushroom empanada, a cilantro pastry filled with wild mushrooms and queso fresco drizzled with a chipotle crema. It’s empanada excellence.
Zacatecas offers only five desserts: tres leches cake, Ancho chile brownie, Kahlua Coffee Flan, Mango Sorbet and Nieve con Cookies (Wedding cookies, warm Mexican chocolate and vanilla ice cream). All are made on the premises. The tres leches cake is moist and spongy courtesy of the three milks (sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream) for which this Mexican favorite is named. Topped with toasted almonds, this decadent dessert is calorie-laden, but well worth the extra miles to work it off.
The most significant difference between gourmet Zaca tacos and their pedestrian predecessors is the high quality of the former, but it’s also evident that quality costs. It’s also evident Zacatecos Tacos & Burritos is positioned to take tacos and Mexican food to new heights in the Duke City.
Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila
3423 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 January 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Zacatecas Totopos, Duck Relleno, Tacos de Cochinita de Pibil, Tacos de Chicharron, Pepita Crusted Pork Loin, Aztec NY Steak, Tres Leches Cake