Fresh, memorable Mexican at Tequila Kitchen Express

Riza Brown

Serrano's has expanded its family to include Tequila Kitchen Express, a bright, shiny east-side eatery with familiar flavors and a slightly different personality. The Express will inevitably draw comparisons to its parent restaurant and this is where the fun comes in: will it have the same smoky street tacos? Is the salsa bar overflowing with options? What exclusive dishes will the menu feature?

When I first walked in, I immediately noticed the lack of sombreros and sad-eyed donkey paintings of typical taquerias, and I didn't miss them. Instead, gray and white chevron walls and industrial metal chairs made for an unexpectedly classy taco joint. I could see directly into the open kitchen and everything looked clean and well cared for; a few bonus observations were the chatter of Spanish and the satisfying sound of meat being chopped, and the sight of steam rising from a pile of tortillas.

The menu doesn't attempt to cover the breadth of Mexican cookery. It showcases a handful of items in categories such as "Los Burritos," "Mexican Feast," "Tacos and Tortas" and "Burgers." The meat options are carne asada, carnitas, lengua and grilled chicken. For the most part, Serrano's and Tequila Kitchen's menus are fairly similar, with a few additions. Garlic cilantro fries ($3.99), Mexican chowder ($8.99) and the rice bowl ($11.45) are some signature items.

What I really wanted were street tacos ($9.24 for three). And a chimichanga ($11.50). And tequila rolls ($8.99), which sounded suspiciously like Southwestern egg rolls. Once I placed my order at the counter, I wandered over to the salsa bar and experienced my first disappointment. Only a paltry seven choices in the salsa bar, and two of those were sour cream and jalapenos. No pico de gallo, no pickled carrots, no lurid green house-made avocado-based sauce. However, there was beer, so that helped. And the tequila rolls came with an avocado-ranch sauce, helping to mitigate the poor salsa selection. The sauce was light and fresh, but the flavorful filling rendered it unnecessary. Corn, herbs, diced red pepper, grilled chicken and black beans were melded together with spicy Jack cheese in a crunchy tortilla. Mexican junk food, but delicious nonetheless.

My other deep-fried favorite, the chimichanga, was made with carnitas and dressed simply. The earthiness of the crispy pork stood out, augmented rather than obscured by the judicious use of cheese and distilled heat of the tequila pepper sauce.

I had saved the best for last: three street tacos piled high with carne asada and generously sprinkled with diced onion and cilantro. The carne asada is marinated in tequila and I'm sure this contributes to its tastiness, but what I crave is the char. It tasted like I was standing next to a barbecue and someone had handed me a chunk of meat straight from the coals. Add some Pacificos and it's officially a party.

For my next meal, I ordered a torta Cubana ($11.45), which the menu declares is a must-have. I am normally not a fan of tortas. The bread tends to be too bready, the lettuce limp and the sauce either nonexistent or overpowering, causing the sandwich to disintegrate into messy shreds. As with so many other things on its menu, Tequila Kitchen gets the proportions just right. The bread was soft but sturdy, able to hold its payload of pulled pork, ham and the star ingredient, Polish sausage, without collapsing.

Chunks of fresh avocado and a melted layer of cheese combined with the meats to create a filling, comforting meal. The garlic and cilantro from the accompanying fries added more flavor and it was a nice departure from the burgers that I usually have for lunch.

Tequila Kitchen can be a little tricky to drive into, but once there, parking is a breeze and there is plenty of seating. The food is reminiscent of Serrano's in all the right ways -- attention to freshness and memorable flavor profiles -- but the new space has style and savor in its own right.

By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent