Two words: Salsa bar. Every Mexican joint should have one. It's the mark of a good taqueria, which is what Taco King strives to be.
Living in San Diego raised my expectations of Mexican food, and I would contentedly munch on homemade pickled carrots and jalapenos from the salsa bar while waiting for my burrito. I felt entitled, even obligated, to fill up my little containers with salsa verde, pico de gallo and sour cream and have a condiment jubilee.
Abraham Gallo, owner of this Taco King and three others (one is opening next month on Abbott Road), also started his eponymous restaurants -- Gallo's Mexican Restaurant -- and Burrito King. He's lived in Alaska for 36 years, opening his first Gallo's in Valdez in 1981.
A point of pride is that his food is authentically Mexican, not Tex-Mex, and that he has been using family recipes since the beginning.
I have friends from California who love Taco King so much that they crave the carne asada tacos here (two for $5.95). One is an inveterate foodie, so I made sure to order them on my first visit.
My husband ordered the adobada burrito ($8.25) and I got an horchata (large, $2.75) to sip on while we waited. Usually, this cold, milky drink would be just the thing under a blazing sun, but it was still good sitting in a booth by a space heater. It tasted lightly of vanilla and cinnamon and helps take the edge off spicy foods.
Even though Taco King is considered fast food (it also has a drive-through window), one of the cooks came out and delivered the food to our table. Everything looked extremely fresh; the cilantro was grassy green and vibrant, and the vegetables still retained crunch and color.
My tacos were very good. The tender meat was charred just right with some pink still in the middle. They didn't need much more than cilantro, onions and a light drizzle of salsa verde. My husband's burrito was packed with soft cubes of pork in a light, tomato-colored sauce, with hints of chili and peppers. Cotija cheese, refried beans, guacamole and sour cream rounded it out.
It was filling and delicious. More beans and rice seemed excessive, but we ate them anyway. We also ordered a side of chips ($1.75) because we still had salsa left.
We reconvened for another dinner date a week later. Taco King is a cheerful place to be in the dead of winter. The tables and chairs are brightly colored and carved with fanciful, pastoral scenes. It was also nice to be in a recently built space. The open kitchen fairly sparkled with newness.
On this visit, my husband went with the adobada torta ($8.25) and beef tostaditas ($7.25), and I ordered two cheese enchiladas ($5.75) off of the Ã la carte menu. I didn't expect to like the torta -- they are often mushy and poorly constructed -- but this one was on a great French bread, soft but substantial. The meat was succulent as before and lent itself well to this variation. Sour cream and slices of fresh avocado helped the sandwich stay together and added another layer of flavor.
My cheese enchiladas, which usually never fail to disappoint, were not to my liking. The enchilada sauce was too sweet, almost cloyingly so. I took one bite then another, but the sugary aftertaste was off-putting.
Fortunately, I had the tostaditas, which were basically nachos supreme. House-made tortilla chips were topped with ground beef, plenty of cheese, a generous amount of guacamole and beans. When I asked for cilantro and onions, the cook handed me a full plate with no hesitation and no charge.
For dessert, we had the bunuelos ($3.25), puffed crispy triangles of dough drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. It tasted like fair food, in keeping with Taco King's fun and festive atmosphere.
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Daily News correspondent