True tacos

Dec 26, 2007 at 12:00 am

Where do you go when you're hungry for a taco? If you're rolling in dough you might hop on a plane and spend a couple days in Mexico City, the burgeoning culinary destination praised by foodies around the world for its mixture of traditional and contemporary regional cuisine. Most likely you're going to drive through a corner fast food joint and get what is basically a variation on every other menu item offered at the place.

A realistic alternative is a short trip to southwest Detroit and Taquería La Tapatia. You can order a variety of tacos prepared in the traditional manner: two soft and warm house-made corn tortillas topped with a choice of meat and garnished with fresh cilantro and onion. Choose among five tacos all priced at one dollar but don't suppose any will be ground beef.

Carne asada, thin cuts of skirt or flank steak, are marinated then grilled and chopped. This is the beef option and a savory favorite. Al pastor is pork marinated in a blend of spices and then slowly cooked on a vertical rotisserie. The sauce is enhanced with soft onion and tastes faintly of clove. Carnitas (little meats) are roast pork that is chopped into pieces that are then fried in their own drippings, making for morsels that are tender inside and crisp and caramelized outside. And for the ultimate pork fat taco, try seasoned and deep-fried pork skin. Not to be mistaken for the crunchy snacking pork rinds, chicharrón makes a tender taco filling that is almost shamefully delicious. If all that pork fat makes you bloat to think about, certainly go for the chicken.

La Tapatia is more than a taquería. Recently re-opened under new ownership there is a greater emphasis on sit-down dining, and the ideal place to do that is in the upper section above the kitchen. Surrounding a large buffet and ceramic tile flooring is a patchwork of amber-stained paneling, cream stucco and brick. Walls are ornamented with colorful village paintings in pastel colors, black-and-white photos of Mexican celebrities from another era and sparkly religious scenes.

The breakfast menu has ordinary options like eggs and ham or chorizo. Chilaquiles, a casserole of totopos (tortilla chips) and green or red sauce will tenaciously establish the morning. Enthusiastic eaters can order two eggs and carne asada for a scant $6.25.

Start lunch or dinner with a chunky fresh plate of guacamole. It's hard to find an appetizer better than this simple blend of avocado and La Tapatia crafts it true. Queso flameado (sausage and gooey melted cheese) should please almost everyone when slathered on a tortilla. You can even order that traditional south-of-the-border restorative soup made with stomach, menudo.

The menu is broad with choices from tortas (Mexican-style sandwiches) to fish soup to salmon salad and other seafood specialties. Children can munch on chicken tenders or quesadillas. Off the grill come fajitas, tampiqueña steak, or the basic T-bone with baked potato. Traditional platters of enchiladas and burritos all come with rice and beans. Even if you find chiles rellenos difficult to pronounce, these cheese- or beef-stuffed poblano chiles — coated with a tempura-like batter, deep-fried and then topped with red sauce — are earthy and wonderful, a deal for slightly more than $6.

Wash it all down with a customary agua fresca like the sweetened, tart, cranberry-like hibiscus flower drink called jamaica. Or horchata, a creamy rice-based beverage flavored with cinnamon. It's something like a refreshing version of rice pudding — if you can imagine that. Mexican sodas and coffee are both available. La Tapatia's Web site claims they offer beer and wine but they're not serving any alcoholic beverages at the moment. For dessert there is a small selection of goodies including sopapillas (deep-fried quick bread) and cheesecake. Otherwise, walk to the end of the block and load a tray full of pastries at Mexicantown Bakery.

There are things to be worked on at the new La Tapatia. While service is friendly it can be sluggish, even with few customers. The salsa laid out with complimentary totopos was tasteless, but when we asked for a different one, they brought a pleasantly spicy roasted tomato version. And we miss the brightly flavored salsa verde (green sauce) that once came with carry-out tacos. All these aside, there are too few restaurants where a group of four adults and two children can eat a decent dinner for $40 or authentic tacos can be ordered and carried out in no time for little money. Sure, we'd prefer Mexico City, but without a doubt, our own Latin American culinary hotspots are the next closest thing.

Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].