Lately, there seems to have been a taco explosion, covering the Bay area in an avalanche of roast pork and shredded beef tucked into soft corn tortillas. Independents have set up shop promising traditional, hand-held Mexican cuisine in mainstream settings well away from the typical bodega cafeteria line, while the Taco Bus has set its sites on conquest, annexing space in St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa.
One of the restaurants to enter this frijole fray is TacoSon Mexican Grill, a Tampa spot known for burritos served three meals a day, daily specials and, of course, tacos galore. The family-owned restaurant recently staked a claim to a spot in St. Pete, but how does it stack up?
On first glance, TacoSon’s new location has a fast-food vibe, with colorful posters in the windows, a typical north-of-the-border Mexican restaurant interior and a half-dozen people scurrying behind the front counter. The menu emblazoned above the counter is extensive, promising more than just the basics of meat and tortilla, with “Combo Specials” and “Family Packs,” plus a host of sides, drinks and options. It can be diverting, until you drill down to the basics.
There’s grilled steak, chicken and pork, plus barbacoa, cochinita pibil, and chicharron, all available stuffed into corn or flour tortillas (the latter served soft or fried crisp) as tacos, burritos, chimichangas, tortas, tostadas, quesadillas or salads. It’s a surfeit of choice, but it could work — as long as the main ingredients can carry the day. Sadly, they all too often don’t.
Across the board, the grilled meats are adequate at best, a bit overcooked and underseasoned, perfect for timid eaters but disappointing for diners seeking a seriously savory meal. The chicharrons, however, are downright displeasing, soggy and chewy and coated in an oily breading that slicks off the fried skin underneath like a male dancer ripping off breakaway pants.
There are better choices, thankfully. Although cooked almost to the point of disintegration and sopping with liquid, the barbacoa has great flavor to balance the lack of texture, salty and rich and excellent in the burritos or chimichangas.
Tacoson’s barbecued pork has better texture — chunky but tender — and is coated in a bright red barbecue sauce that’s surprisingly sweet, a good match with the restaurant’s sometimes harsh hot salsa but cloying on its own.
Those lackluster meats mean tacos — where the fillings are exposed by simple toppings of cabbage, pickled onions and cilantro — are not the best choice here, despite the name. Better to jam a flour tortilla full of rice, beans and cheese to help fortify the main ingredient, or deep-fry the whole deal since, well, frying always helps.
TacoSon does make credible tamales, especially when stuffed with the barbacoa, cochinita pibil or the restaurant’s chicken mole, their extra moisture and seasoning augmenting the rich and tasty cornmeal foundation. They also come out wrapped in leaves and fresh from the steamer — getting a hot facial while opening the package is half of the fun.
For vegetarians, there’s colache, an ancient dish (and TacoSon specialty) that combines zucchini and other veggies in a stir-fry, with subtle seasonings that bring out the flavors of the vegetables. Along with the tamales, it’s one of the few things on the menu that is elevated beyond fast-food Mexican quality.
That said, there are still things to recommend TacoSon: the wide array of agua fresca and Jarritos sodas, cheap and elegant flan, and prices almost low enough to compete with national chains. Add the tamales and the colache and you can almost see why TacoSon was able to garner enough support in Tampa to justify its expansion.
But with the proliferation of similar fast Mexican food purveyors on both sides of the Bay, you need more than just a few highlights to keep the hungry masses interested. That’s just basic taco-nomics.
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