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TACO LOCO

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There was some snickering when folks were telling me about a new taco joint on the South Side that was manifesting in the evenings at O'Leary's lunch counter. "Taco Leary's!" But it sounded right to me. I grew up in a neighborhood of Irish and Mexican immigrants where Simon's Carnicería y Burritos naturally sat next to Ryan's Cork and Bottle.

Still, there was something amusing about O'Leary's/Taco Loco. It was as if two households had been thrown together haphazardly. One hand-lettered menu posted above the counter offered kielbasa with kraut and hoagies; the other, lengua (veal tongue) and enchiladas. Behind the counter, condiments for making tacos nestled alongside sandwich fixin's. On the wall, a cheap picture of the Point was surrounded by oversized Valentine's Day greetings that beseeched "Te Amo," and plastic Mexican flags.

It's nothing fancy -- just a little hash house with a dozen or so seats at plastic-covered tables, and another six stools along the counter -- but what a welcome sight for someone like me who misses all those home-style tacquerias. Two women were working the grill behind the counter, and another man sat carefully lettering new neon-hued poster-board signs for the front window. The TV was tuned to a Spanish-language channel.

The menu offers about two-dozen items. Prices start at one dollar -- for a bean and cheese soft taco or fried taco stuffed with potato -- and top out at $5.95 for dinner platter, an entree served with rice and refried beans. Taco Loco offers Mexican soft drinks for $1.25 each -- Jumex juices and Jarrito bottled sodas in exotic tropical flavors like guava, tamarind and pineapple.

Once our order was taken, both women set to work making it, and the items arrived as they were done. First, the tacos made from soft corn, home-made tortillas and filled with meat, chopped onion and cilantro. I had carnitas, roasted pork that had a sweet, almost BBQ-flavor to it; my companion had the spicy chorizo sausage. (For many items there's a soyrizo, or vegetarian sausage, alternative.) These are certainly more typical Mexican tacos -- a soft tortilla folded around filling -- than those pre-formed crunchy shells with the ingredients carefully layered that we too often settle for.

A small flour tortilla had been used to make my quesadilla, which was also simply folded over. It wasn't very big -- not one of those feeds-six, wagon-wheel appetizers -- but then it was only $1.50 and it was filled with a sweet Mexican cheese. My companion had moved onto to the chile relleno, a green pepper stuffed with the same cheese, then dipped in batter, fried, and served in a mild red sauce. (Nothing is too spicy at Taco Loco, and the tables are set with bowls of green and red salsas for personal spice adjustment.)

I finished up with the tortas de papa, which was a small fried seasoned mashed-potato patty. (Every culture has a potato pancake of sorts.) My companion still had room for a full entree -- chicken enchiladas topped with mole. Shredded chicken was wrapped in two corn tortillas, covered with the chocolate-y mole, and then covered with crumbled, slightly salty cojito cheese.

Throughout our meal, we got a crazy mix of china plates, plastic baskets, silverware and plastic cutlery, but this isn't the sort of place where one minds. My compañero was endlessly distracted by the television show. A buxom blonde in a skin-tight red dress and packing a rifle stalked some guy. I turned away -- same old story the world over -- and sure enough, there was a loud bang and a guy screamed "Medico!" I watched South Siders come and go. Taco Loco offers carry-out.

One cook explained flan, Taco Loco's only dessert, to the customers near us. We needed no such prompting. "Two, please!" We each received a 4-inch-square slab of the rich egg custard, its many interior holes (almost like Swiss cheese) oozing caramelized sugar.

Hung above the front door was a charm-bedecked cactus, which promised to deliver riches. I don't know how wealthy one can get slinging $2 tacos but Taco Loco has a hopeful location. It's high time Pittsburgh had a cheap, fast tacqueria -- and open late! Those hordes of club kids and bar-hoppers on the South Side just drew a lucky number. Believe me, I know: Tacos and bars make a great combination. * * 1/2

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