Mexican restaurants abound in Anchorage, so it isn't always news when a new one pops up. Tarascos, for example -- the modest, homey little joint on the corner of Old Seward and Tudor -- has been open for a year and I never noticed, though I drive by the location often. When a friend with a taste for heat recommended it, I added it to my list, anxious to break out of my routine Mexican rut. (I'm not breaking up with you, Taco King. I just want to see other tacos.)
My husband and I stopped in for an early dinner on a recent Saturday night. Ramon, an owner, acts as host, server and all-around face of the front-of-house. He has, to say the least, a big personality. "Oh no," he said, smiling, when we walked in to a relatively quiet dining room. "Now I'm going to have to work." He seated us in a window-side booth and pointed out the "beautiful view of the Holiday gas station." I was already sold. I like a warm welcome -- especially in the kind of unassuming, family-friendly place that he is running.
Ramon brought chips and two salsas, mild and hot, to the table. When we quickly demolished the hot sauce, he brought us a bowl of green salsa. "I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt," he said. "You like hot." I was glad we made the cut. Chunky, briny and bright, it was the best of the three, though, to be honest, it wasn't actually that hot.
We got off to a rough start. Our first disappointment came with the Tarascos combo appetizer platter ($15.75) -- a fairly run-of-the-mill plate of deep-fried items that tasted suspiciously as if they had been cooked in old oil. The filling in the flautas was a rather dry mound of underseasoned chicken. Overall, these tasted like they had been in the freezer, and for too long. A few tortilla chips in the center under a sprinkling of melted cheese looked suspiciously like "filler," decidedly redundant with the fresh chips and dip on the table.
My husband's mole enchiladas ($14.75) were also a disappointment. The sauce lacked the velvety texture and richness of my favorite mole in town (Serrano's) and the flavor was unpleasantly bitter -- as if the spices hadn't been well cooked out or as if the dry spices in the paste had been slightly burned before being simmered.
The meal's saving grace was the chipotle chicken ($17.75). Fresh, light, gently seasoned -- this was a subtle and pleasing dish. The chicken was tender and the ample onions and peppers were perfectly al dente. I doctored mine up with a bit of the salsa and a generous hit of salt (my personal weakness). The dish was substantial in a way that didn't leave me with the heavy, cheesy, over-indulged feeling that typical Mexican restaurant fare can often leave you with.
One good dish out of three isn't good odds, and we left wishing that the energy in the front of the house was as present in the kitchen.
Happily, things turned around completely when we ordered a take-out lunch later in the week. For starters, Ramon is just as playful on the phone (he teased me about taking the day off from cooking). I ordered Chile Colorado ($15.25), carne asada tacos ($17.75) and the spinach enchiladas ($11). And this time, Tarascos went three for three.
The enchilada, while cheesy and creamy, had a hefty portion of spinach, giving it a fresh, earthy taste. The meat in the carne asada was smokier and drier than the version I routinely eat from Taco King, but lent itself well to the addition of sour cream, salsa and various hot sauces from my personal stash. I liked the pungent pico de gallo garnish, though I would have liked much more. A side note: my lunch partner brought over a delicious, acidic cabbage salad, which lent a nice crunch and a tangy note to the soft textures and slow-cooked flavors of the meal. In other words, a few more fresh, crispy vegetables could really elevate Tarascos' dishes.
The winning dish of the day was the Chile Colorado. It was a generous portion of tender, hefty chunks of pork, with the distinctly stringy texture of slow-braised meat, swimming in a savory, flavorful tomato-based sauce that I would like to eat with a spoon. It's a crave-worthy dish and the first to disappear.
Worth noting: none of the dishes packed much heat, but I've been told that Ramon treats his customers gingerly until he knows their palates. The crowd at lunchtime on Sunday was largely Spanish-speaking, which leads me to wonder: did they get all of my spice? If so, I'm going to practice my Spanish for any future visits. Muy caliente, por favor?
★★★ | $$-$$$
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Location: 4300 Old Seward Highway
Contact: 770-2888 and tarascosrestaurant.com
Want to rave or pan? Write your own review of this restaurant or any other recently reviewed place at adn.com/dining.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent