taco-trio

Opening: Taco Trio

Taco Trio on UrbanspoonI‘ve been wondering recently whether a truly “authentic” Mexican restaurant or taqueria would be able to gain any traction in the Portland food scene. For as many “On the Borders” and “Margaritas” as there are (conveniently located on the outskirts of the Maine Mall parking lot, and in the open sore of St. John street, respectively), those restaurants specialize much more in the crispy-fried, sour cream-drenched, ground beef realm of Tex-Mex style Mexican food, which has little or nothing to do with what people are actually eating South of the border. How responsive would people actually be to small, corn tortillas, topped simply with grilled meat, onion, and cilantro?

Taco Trio, which opened today in South Portland, seems intent on exploring that question. The small, unassuming corner location serves up a menu of “traditional” Mexican food, similar to what you would actually find in a corner taco stand in Mexico. Because it was opening day, we will ignore the small hiccups that almost any new business encounters (a shaky ventilation system that left the room full of carne asada-scented smoke, a line out the door being held up by customers with lots of questions about unfamiliar offerings, a few overheard dropped orders, limited tables) and assume that they will be worked out over time. Because this is the restaurant’s opening day, I want to focus entirely on the food, and on the menu.

I ordered six tacos, to get a broad idea of the offerings of the restaurant. Tacos are priced at $3.50 each, or 3 for $9, and come with your choice of 10 clearly homemade salsas, ranging in heat from mild to “very hot.” Each taco is served in a soft corn tortilla, and topped with diced raw white onions and a heaping fistful of chopped cilantro. It’s a fairly self-service affair: You wait for your name to be called, you choose your salsas from the salsa bar, you get your horchata from the gurgling drink dispenser, and you find a table.

The carne asada, a grilled, marinated steak, was flavorful and delicious. Grilled in the open kitchen, it was satsifyingly salty, and only improved by a healthy pour of the salsa arbol, a mildly spicy combination of arbol pepper, tomato, onion, and garlic. The taco al pastor, slices of pork marinated in adobo and pineapple, didn’t bear much resemblance to authentic tacos al pastor, which is tough to pull off in the US, where health code regulations prevent the operation of the vertical roasting spit customary to this dish. The flavors of pastor were all there, if a little subdued; some chunks of fresh pineapple would have brightened and improved this taco. The chorizo taco, mixed with potato, was flavorful but a tad underdone. I prefer my chorizo very crispy, and this was a bit more of a mush. It was improved mightily by the addition of a little of the salsa “borracha,” or “drunk.” The added ancho peppers, garlic, onion, and beer added a bit of a fiery punch, though again, the salsa didn’t seem to live up to its three-star spiciness rating. The barbacoa de cabra, a shredded goat-meat taco, was fatty and lacking in flavor, which was surprising for goat, a meat I always expect to be a little more strongly-flavored. The champinones taco was good, with thick, Earthy slices of mushroom. The puerco en salsa taco was only good; a stewed pork so swimming in juices that it blew out the grilled tortilla it was wrapped in, and made it difficult to eat.

Overall, the presentation of the tacos, in their plastic straw basket, was what I would expect from a taqueria that prided itself on “authentic” offerings, with different flavorful meats topped with onions and perhaps a bit too enthusiastic a throw of cilantro. I was disappointed that Taco Trio wasn’t using homemade tortillas, an easy upgrade to tacos that no one seems to be doing, that is much more suited for soupy fillings. Some wedges of lime would have added some needed acid to the tacos. The rest of the menu looks promising, including quesadillas, sopes (shallow corn masa bowls, filled with meat, beans, queso fresco, and sour cream) and some substantial-looking burritos spied from my corner table, as well as that king of the Mexican sandwich, the torta (meat, beans, and avocado on a soft Mexican bolillo roll).

The pricing was a bit problematic, in a way that I’m not sure how to fix. In Mexico, where tacos are tiny little things, served in small corn tortillas, it’s not uncommon to sit down to five or six (or more) tacos at a time, in the course of an evening spent filling your belly with cheap beer and tequila. In Mexico, that will cost you about five bucks USD. The problem with running a taqueria like that in America is that of expectation. We Americans are used to ordering tacos one or two at a time. If Taco Trio’s tacos were smaller, and priced at around $2 each, many customers would feel gypped by their small tacos. However, $9 for three tacos or almost $20 for six tacos doesn’t really feel right, either. Burritos are also $9.00, which seems high. I don’t pretend to know the answer to how to price Mexican street food staples in the context of the American restaurant business, but something feels off about these prices.

It will be very interesting to see what Taco Trio becomes in a year. On their opening day, they seem dedicated to providing something approaching an “authentic” Mexican dining experience, with a friendly staff, and an appropriately spare dining room. And indeed, it is a treat to see agua de tamarindo within throwing distance of the South Portland Post Office. Already, though, about half the tacos seemed to have their flavors somewhat dialed-back. The salsas, similarly, while clearly handmade and inventive, never bring the heat they promise. Is this an attempt to please every possible type of customer, both those craving “real” Mexican, as well as those who just want a Crunchwrap Supreme on their lunch break but don’t want to drive to Taco Bell? Could the addition of a hard-shelled, iceberg lettuce-topped “Crispy Kickin’ Cool Ranch” taco be far behind?

We will be waiting patiently (and returning over and over for more tortas and tacos) to see which direction Taco Trio eventually decides on, because straddling the line will be impossible. I find myself really, really rooting for Taco Trio, and hope that they will dig their heels in, stand their ground, and wait for their tacos nopales and their barbacoa de cabra to find their audience. I am convinced that it exists.

Comments

  1. Susan says

    That is a generous pour of cilantro indeed!

    Have you been to Tu Casa yet? Not sure if you ever made it to Salvador when you were in Mexico -but they do a pretty good job of authentic Salvadoran food – the pupusas are out of this world and the atmosphere will kind of make you think you are in Central America.

    • Malcolm says

      I was actually supposed to have lunch at Tu Casa today, but won’t be going until tomorrow or later in the week. I’ll report back then. :) Thanks for reading!

      • Susan says

        The Enchiladas Salvadoreñas are my favorite. They also make really good rice – I’m generally not a rice fan, but man their rice is good. I suspect lard is involved.

  2. John says

    Can’t wait to try it. I’ve given up trying to get authentic Mexican in Maine. In fact when I want it I make it myself. I turn to the cookbooks of Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless. Getting ingredients is a bit tricky sometimes but there’s a store on Washington Ave (can’t remember the name) that stocks a lot of Mexiccan chilies.

    • Malcolm says

      Don’t give up hope yet, John. Taco Trio is definitely showing promise. I am hoping they get off the fence and really start kicking some teeth in, spice-wise.

  3. shel says

    Thanks for the preview, i’ve been eagerly awaiting the opening of Taco Trio. Driving to Mateo’s in Bath for tacos is well worth it but i’m looking forward to trying a place close to home.

    • Malcolm says

      The pricing is a little all over the place. Add guacamole and sour cream to a burrito, and it costs $12 bucks. They’re pretty big, but still. The sopes are $3.75 each, but who eats one sope?

      • Patrick says

        $12?! That’s criminal. I honestly don’t understand the obsession restaurants in Maine have with charging so much money for a tube of rice.

        Related – I got the blandest $8 burrito in existence on Main St in Biddeford a few weeks ago and there was nary a hot sauce bottle to be found. Upon further investigation, I learned that I could *order* a “side” of totally nondescript sauce for a buck twenty five. Ummmm… no. I’ll just finish my totally mediocre meal, leave, and never ever ever come back.

        Sorry, I usually try to be positive with comments to keep it fun and lighthearted, but a twelve dollar burrito – in South Portland – is so outrageous that I’m not quite sure if you’re pulling our leg.

        I’ll end on a high note, on principle – I made your rye rolls again yesterday, and they were even better than my first batch, thanks to a warmer kitchen and faster setting on the KitchenAid. They’re *really* good! Thanks again for that that posting!

        • Malcolm says

          I tend to agree. I hope the pricing is something they’ll work out.

          Glad you revisited and like the rye buns…I let about a dozen go moldy, which makes me feel like a bad person.

  4. says

    Ooh, I do love authentic Mexican food and cook often at home for friends and family.
    Now, I have to agree with you about the prices. Why are the prices for “cheap” Mexican food so high here in Maine? Nine bucks for a burrito (unless it’s lobster) is outrageous, lol! I feel like we’re getting “duped” in the local Mexican restaurants, just like that so-called “silver” they try to sell us in Mexico ;)

  5. Zac says

    Great writeup. Noticed that they were opening soon, while passing through SoPo last week (stop at Scratch for amazing bagels). Sorry to hear about the blandness, but exciting to know that they are throwing out some more interesting items, like goat.

    Also, I thought your fact about health codes not allowing the vertical spit for pastor was interesting. I had no idea.

    As usual, great post!

    • Malcolm says

      Thanks Zac. Actually, I should clarify. I don’t think ALL vertical spits are against US health codes; it’s just the Mexican method of stacking raw meat on a vertical spit, and then cooking the outside a bit at a time, while the inside stays only raw or warm, that isn’t allowed. Some US manufacturers have tried to solve this problem, by having the spike that goes through the center of the meat be heated, as well, essentially cooking the meat inside and out at the same time, and that is apparently to code…but if you ask me, a taco al pastor just isn’t the same if it doesn’t provide some risk of trichinosis.

  6. Michael says

    We’ve been looking forward to this but haven’t been yet. But these prices and the bagged tortillas give me pause already, since those were two of my complaints about El Rayo (where I could stand to go only once). So does the “fistful of cilantro.” At El Rayo the tacos were made by people who apparently had never eaten a taco before. This can’t be true here. So we’ll go and check it out.

    Here’s my standard for taco prices: http://www.elchilito.com/home.html (example: $2.69 for a carne asada taco, $5.29 for a carne asada burrito).

    • Malcolm says

      We still haven’t been to El Rayo, but I suppose we’ll have to get there one of these days. Your taco pricing, however, seems much more realistic.

      • Michael says

        So we went to TT the other night and I’ve got to say it’s pretty great. If you get the 3-taco deal for 9 bucks that gets you as close as you’re going to get to Texas prices, which are based on lower taxes, lower regulations, and cheaper labor than here. I’ll pay the differential.

        Like El Rayo, TT uses store-bought tortillas, not handmade. However, unlike El Rayo, TT 1) doubles the tortillas (which makes for a structurally sounder taco) and 2) warms the tortillas.

        And as for the flavor of the salsas: I tried two of the medium spicy, the verde and another (can’t remember), and they were appropriately flavored. It’s not all about heat, y’all. If they’re homemade, that says a lot right there. Also, there’s a functional reason for spicy food — to make one’s self sweat — that we obviously don’t need here.

        • Malcolm says

          I’m glad to hear they are doubling tortillas now. They weren’t when we visited, and I think it will help with some of their saucier fillings. I am also glad they are making homemade salsas; I don’t take issue with their flavor (they are all delicious), but if you are going to bother having a heat scale, you are saying that heat does matter, and if heat matters, a few of the salsas should be hot.

  7. Jeanna says

    Malcom,
    Thanks for the great post, very vivid review!
    Not sure if you travel up the coast at all but I insist you to check out el el frijoles (l.l. bean) up in Sargentville, between Blue Hill and Deer Isle. I believe the story is that the owners have spent a lot of time in Mexico and just wanted to spread the love in downeast Maine. The nicest thing is that it is all home made and the prices ain’t bad either ($8 for 3 tacos w/ beans and rice). Also, they offer spicy lobster in several dishes to provide a fusion experience, too. http://www.elelfrijoles.com
    I’ll be over to check out Taco Trio next week, sounds like it is promising but a rookie in the Portland-area restaurant scene.

  8. Tracy says

    Stopped in again today to try a carnitas burrito. It was very good! Wanted to mention that they kicked up the heat level on the arbol salsa for sure, though not sure the same complexity of flavor is coming through.

    I would prefer to see pricing the chips and salsa separately. Say, $7 for the burrito, $2 extra for the chips and salsa. I don’t eat the chips generally so it makes the $9 price tag feel that much more expensive.

    But that burrito was tasty!

  9. Zack says

    I love authentic Mexican food but despise cilantro. I’m coming up to Portland next week and would like to try this place out, but based on those pictures, I’m hesitant. That is an absurd amount of cilantro, you can’t see any of the other ingredients! That would taste like a bar of Irish Spring to me. I could always ask for my food cilantro-free, but they’ll probably look at me like I had 3 heads.

    • Malcolm says

      Ah, so you have that genetic tick that makes cilantro taste like soap? I am fascinated by that. Jillian claims to have it also, but I suspect she isn’t telling the truth. At any rate, I’m sure it would be no problem to get your tacos, hold the cilantro…and if you like somewhat-authentic Mexican, Taco Trio is definitely worth a try.

  10. says

    I’m moving to SoPo soon, so I’ll have to check it out! Love your blog BTW — I just stumbled upon it and have added you to my Maine Foodie Finds blogroll. Look forward to following all your posts! ~Rebecca

  11. says

    I just heard about this place and will give it a shot. I have been in Maine 9 years now and as a native Chicagoan (large Mexican population, plus I have Mexican relatives) combined with being married to a man from California we truly miss Mexican food, real Mexican food. In Chicago taquerias are fairly common and a burrito should run you know more than $6 tops and it should be large. Here in Maine its almost criminal what people charge.

    Someone mentioned Cancun in Biddeford, it’s so-so. They have a few dishes that are good and when they first opened I was in there weekly but over time the quality has gone down. Its still better than almost anything else in Maine but due to inconsistencies with simple dishes like enchiladas and tacos that are hard shell, I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there.

    Tu Casa was mentioned, in my opinion if you want Mexican go there despite the fact its Salvadorian, it will hit the spot!

    • Malcolm says

      Thanks for writing! It’s funny, because in Mexico, burritos are a much more diminutive size. That whole “huge burrito” thing started in San Francisco, I believe, in the Mission district. Since writing this review, we have been to Tu Casa a couple of times, and I don’t see why you’d ever go anywhere else in Portland for this type of cuisine. You can see our thoughts on it here.

  12. Joey says

    my husband was a bit bothered by the salsa situation. they give you one small condiment cup per meal which if you are buying three tacos barely dresses one. they charge extra for extra condiment cups. seems a bit steep when they are priding themselves on their salsa bar. seems like salsa should be plentiful….

    • Malcolm says

      I agree. This seems like an attempted cost-saving measure that really needs to go away, unless they see customers filling soda cups with salsa.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] is poised to happen in a big way, in Portland. Or maybe it’s not. With the newly-opened Taco Trio, the gas station-turned-taco-stand El Rayo, the kimchi-drenched “fusion” tacos at Gogi, [...]

  2. [...] newest spin on Mexican-influenced cuisine. After a few mildly disappointing runs at “authentic” street food, I was content to get my Latin American fix at Tu Casa, the Salvadoran place in the East End. [...]

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