The taco landscape across the Duke City may well be a tale of two tacos. At one extreme we have Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila, the upscale, gourmet taco eatery situated in fashionable Nob Hill. In February, 2013, Zacatecas Tacos was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation‘s “best new restaurant” in America honor. Zacatecas Tacos represents the “self-actualization” of tacos…tacos which are all they can be…tacos which have been elevated to the nth degree of creativity and deliciousness…tacos at a price point heretofore not achieved in Albuquerque by what is essentially a street food favorite.
The antithesis of Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila may well be Tacos Mex Y Mariscos, a timeworn restaurant on heavily trafficked Fourth Street. Situated in an edifice which previously housed everything from a Thai restaurant to a sandwich shop, Tacos Mex Y Mariscos is as humble as Zacatecas Tacos is ostentatious. It’s as much a “cheap eat” as Zacatecas is pricy. The menu at Tacos Mex is simple and unsophisticated compared to the complex and urbane menu at Zacatecas. From all conceivable appearances, Tacos Mex Y Mariscos is the pauper to Zacatecas’ prince.
There’s even a socioeconomic dichotomy between the customers who habituate these two contradistinctive taquerias. Zacatecas Tacos is frequented by a decidedly chic and urban crowd while Tacos Mex is beloved by entire families, many of whom are immigrants more comfortable speaking in Spanish. The one commonality between guests at both taquerias is a love for terrific tacos and they can get them at both Zacatecas Tacos and Tacos Mex.
The kicker is that one purveyor of terrific tacos isn’t any more authentic or more Mexican than the other. Both honor Mexican culinary traditions and do so very well. If there’s one word which best distinguishes the tacos at Tacos Mex from the tacos at Zacatecas, it would be “campesino,” a word for a peasant or farmer. The tacos proffered at Tacos Mex subscribe to the timeless campesino practice of using whatever ingredients were available at the time to feed the family, often through times of abject poverty and hardship.
To less-than-intrepid diners, those ingredients might constitute adventure eating. To aficionados of authentic Mexican food, those ingredients signal an invitation to deliciousness. Among the “adventurous” ingredients are lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (head), buche (pork stomach), tripas (intestines), longonisa (sausage) and birria (goat meat). The menu also includes tacos crafted with more familiar ingredients: carnitas (cubed pork), al pastor (spit-roasted pork), chorizo (spiced pork sausage), carne asada (grilled beef) and shrimp.
The value-priced tacos are terrific, some of the very best in town. Two corn tortillas are engorged with the ingredients of your choosing as as well as onions and cilantro if you want. Then you can mosey on over to the salsa bar for pico de gallo, a guacamole-salsa, a tomatillo salsa or a fire-roasted tomato salsa, not that they’re needed. It’s hard to say one taco is better than the next because they’re all so very, very good. With each successive taco you eat, you’ll likely discover a new favorite. For now…and probably because it was the last one sampled, my favorite is the al pastor. Weather permitting, on weekends Tacos Mex will set up the spit grill outdoors. It’s like a sweet Mexican smoke signal beckoning the hungry masses.
The mariscos menu includes a number of Mexican seafood favorites including tostadas de ceviche–one made with camarones (shrimp) and one a mix (mixto) of seafood: shrimp, fish and squid. A generous smear of mayo tops the tostada, both as a “binder” to hold the seafood ingredients and as a contrast to the briny seafood flavors. Unlike some ceviche, this one is light on the citrus flavor which is perfectly fine because you can squeeze on as many limes as you’d like. The shrimp is whole, not chopped. In addition to seafood, the tostada is topped with slices of ripe avocado and finely chopped tomatoes, cilanto and onion.
As if tacos and mariscos aren’t enough, the menu offers a wonderful array of caldos (soups): posole, caldo de siete mares (seafood stew), menudo and caldo de res, the Mexican comfort food favorite. Caldo de res will warm you up, fill your belly and make you feel good all over when it’s made well. Tacos Mex prepares a very good caldo de res. Swimming in a large bowl of light beef broth are perfectly prepared vegetable favorites such as potatoes, carrots, zucchini, cabbage and corn-on-the-cob as well as very flavorful shank bones and their meat. Garnish the caldo with onions and cilantro and you’ve got a soup as nurturing and comfortable as a Vietnamese pho.
Tacos Mex Y Mariscos offers a number of aguas frescas (literally fresh waters) to wash down all the rich, delicious food you’ll enjoy. The horchata is as sweet as milk left over from a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal and it doesn’t have the “powdery” aftertaste of some horchata. Also available are a number of Mexican carbonated beverages, including Mexican Coke a Cola.
Tacos Mex Y Mariscos is located on my well-beaten-path to Mary & Tito’s Cafe. Because Mary & Tito’s is nonpareil in its excellence, I drove by Tacos Mex with hardly ever giving it a second thought. My mistake! Tacos Mex is a destination restaurant in its own right, a taqueria good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as a Duke City restaurant nominated as one of America’s best new eateries for 2013.
Tacos Mex Y Mariscos
5201 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 17 May 2013
1st VISIT: 23 February 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Horchata, Caldo de Res, Tostadas de Ceviche Mixto, Tacos: Al Pastor, Carnitas, Longoniza, Chorizo