Taqueria Del Sol (Cary, NC)

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Cary’s Taqueria Del Sol is a bit of an odd bird.  It’s part of a “chain” with just a handful of locations – in GA, TN, NC, and PA.  Despite its Mexican name, the restaurant does not serve strictly Mexican food.  The menu runs the gamut from tacos (duh – but with unusual fillings) to chef’s specials like shrimp and grits.  And the atmosphere, it must be said, is kind of strange.  The food we tried was hit or miss, but the hits were sufficient enough to bring me back for another try one day.

The restaurant opened a few months ago in a cavernous lofty space in Cary Crossroads.  We were there the other night, and it was virtually empty.  Of people, yes, but also of decor.  Granted, two of the walls are mostly windows, but the rest of the space was a bit white-washed and rather sterile, mixed with a few oddities here and there.  Witness the 2 or 3 rustic “Corona” tables nestled among the many plain tables and chairs, or a red dresser with a bowl of tangerines sitting incongruously near the front door.  Other than that, the ambiance is strikingly spare.  The pendant lighting is hung up near the ceiling (which is probably 20 ft high); bringing the lighting down several feet would probably make a nice impact, although I’m not sure the pendant style really fits.  Anyway, the overall effect is, despite the spotlessness and abundance of natural light, decidedly un-cozy.  There is a small bar, and they do have a lot of plastic tables with umbrellas outside.  It seems best suited for a quick lunch or dinner.

But enough about that.  As I mentioned, the menu has some quirks.  These are not your classic Mexican tacos.  Their individual price ($2.39) is a bit high considering you can usually score some authentic Mexican ones for under $2, sometimes even as low as $1.50.  There’s a small card of kid’s menu items, for which the prices are inexplicably missing.  You order at the counter and they’ll bring your food to you.  I opted for two tacos, the “Memphis BBQ” and the “fried chicken”.  My wife went with two others, the “carnitas” (one of the few straightforwardly Mexican items on the menu) and “veggie”.  We ordered a cheese enchilada ($3.39) for our daughter.  You can choose your sauce for the enchilada, and I asked for the least spicy one.  This happened to be “lemon cream”, which I probably should have guessed would be a poor choice.  We also ordered chips and guacamole ($3.79).  The food came out alarmingly quickly, within a few minutes for sure.  First was the chips and guac.  These were actually outstanding.  The chips were fresh made and still quite warm, and nicely salted, and the guacamole was fresh, chunky, and just right.  Our main orders followed shortly.  Our taco orders came in little plastic baskets, while the enchilada came served on a real plate.  The tacos (served in flour tortillas) were a fine size, so two with some chips would probably be enough for most diners.  The chips and guac were enough for all three of us to share, so, if you’re by yourself, this place may get little pricey for a quick meal.  Anyway, the bbq taco was good.  It tasted just like you might expect, with a nice tangy, spicy sauce and a bit of coleslaw.  My chicken taco was not so great – a couple of lackluster chicken tenders, some mayo, and not much iceberg lettuce or tomato.  It really had an unappealing fast-food flavor.  My wife reported both of her tacos to be good.  The veggie one was spicy.  As for the cheese enchilada, this looked and tasted fairly bad.  It was smothered in a really thick sauce, and the cheese inside was not really even melted.  Everything was the exact same color – the cheese, the flour tortilla, and the sauce.  It amounted to a cheesy salt bomb with some lemon flavor; even my daughter, who normally would be fine with something of that description, didn’t care too much for it.

With a few tweaks to the dining experience and perhaps to the pricing, Taqueria Del Sol could probably be a consistent winner.  I’ll most likely go elsewhere for my regular taco fix, but, for something different, I might give it another shot.

Taqueria El Toro (Raleigh, NC)

For those who consider Durham to be the place to go for authentic Mexican cuisine in the Triangle, you must visit Taqueria El Toro in Raleigh.  Aside from Durham’s Taqueria La Vaquita, this was my favorite taco experience in the Triangle. 

It’s a little hidden, in a small shopping center just south of Raleigh near the intersection of Tryon Rd and Hwy 401, but absolutely worth seeking out.  Inside, the space is suprisingly large and spotlessly clean.  I chose three tacos ($1.59 each): carnitas, al pastor, and chicken tinga.  We also ordered a plate of what appeared to be house-made chips ($1.99), which were very thick, and a large serving of delicious, creamy guacamole (for the astoundingly low price of $1.09).  Taqueria El Toro has an excellent salsa bar, featuring 6 or 8 salsas (complete with labels), plus less common garnishes like blistered peppers, sliced carrots, and a spicy cabbage slaw.

The carnitas taco was excellent – among the best I’ve had.  The pork was maybe a touch dry, but it did offer a nice crispy crust.   The al pastor taco was my least favorite of the bunch, and I’ve had better versions at a handful of other places.  But the chicken tinga was just fantastic – delectable shredded chicken with surprisingly subtle chipotle flavoring.  All tacos are served on double stacks of outstanding corn tortillas.

I encourage you to go check out Taqueria El Toro; in my opinion it rivals just about any place in Durham.  I can’t wait to go back!

Review: Tijauna Flats (Cary, NC)

Another chain, another terrible culinary experience.  You can easily get sucked into these kinds of misadventures with your work colleagues.  That’s one of the reasons that I pack my own lunch about 95% of the time.

You’re greeted at the door of Tijuana Flats in Cary by a friendly staffer who hands you a giant laminated menu and explains the logistics of ordering: tell them what you want and pay at the counter, and it’s full table service from that point on.  The menu features the usual Tex-Mex suspects: burritos, tacos, chimichangas, and the like, with a few twists.  Witness the “bangin’ chicken” burrito, with some kind of buffalo sauce and ranch, or the ceasar or steak-n-cheese burritos.

I wanted to get a baseline experience for the purpose of comparison to Moe’s Southwest Grill or Chipotle, so I ordered the basic burrito with carnitas and added guacamole.  I selected the “Tijuana” size [medium], which I correctly assumed would be way too big for me to finish.  The fillings in the burritos here may not be exactly what you expect.  Standard additions include olives and jalapenos, for example, and exclude rice and beans.  You are offered a choice of either queso, guacamole, or salsa with your chips.  This is a nice, but a little confusing, as one of the claims to fame of the whole place is its huge selection of hot sauces to go with your food.  Not thinking, I chose salsa.  It was unremarkable.  Worse still was my burrito, which was served in one of the worst flour tortillas I’ve ever eaten.  It was just incredibly bland, with mushy mushy meat.  To make my food more flavorful, I experimented with a handful of their hot sauces.  These range from mild and sweet to downright scorching (cartoon faces let you know what’s what: from placid to tearing up to the face of poison death).  Unfortunately, none of them actually tasted good.  The sweet ones in particular had an unpleasant artificial taste to them.

There’s really no reason to visit these types of restaurants considering the abundance of fantastic Mexican food in the area.  So avoid them if you can.  If you can’t, Chipotle heads up the list by a huge margin, followed by Moe’s and then Tijuana Flats.  I haven’t tried Qdoba or Salsarita’s yet, but I’m not really eager to do so.

Chubby’s Tacos (Raleigh, NC)

Chubby’s Tacos is a growing local empire, with locations in Durham, RTP, and Raleigh.  It’s a taqueria for those not brave enough to venture into one of the area’s abundant (and sometimes superb) “authentic” Mexican holes-in-the-wall.  At Chubby’s, it’s nice to everything in English, but you also won’t be able to find some of the more esoteric taco fillings like tongue, tripe, or cactus.  Last night, we went to Chubby’s Lake Boone Trail location in Raleigh.

The tacos are cheap, yes, but taqueria tacos are always cheap.  Chubby’s offers $2 and $3 tacos, depending on your choice of filling, and you can “make it a meal” by adding rice, beans, and chips for only $2 extra.  For just $6-8, you can get two tacos and all the side items, and it will really fill you up.  So you can see the appeal of the place.  For comparison, however, you can get 4 tacos for only $6 ($1.50 each) from Raleigh’s excellent Fonda Y Birreria Jalisco, and most area taquerias offer similar pricing.

Even if Chubby’s pricing matches up favorably with other local haunts, the food, unfortunately, does not.  I’ve been twice to Chubby’s and left a bit disappointed both times.  The rice and beans are particularly bad.  As dry as cardboard and nearly as flavorless, the rice is borderline inedible.  The beans seem to have been poured straight out of a can.  My wife and I left both of these side items virtually untouched.  Chips, on the other hand, were warm and satisfying.  And as for the tacos themselves, they really are just average.  They are served on a nice hot double-stack of corn tortillas, but the meats are lackluster.  The carnitas I tried was quite mushy; in fact its texture was approaching that of eastern Carolina bbq.  The al pastor meat was overcooked but at least had a hit of pineapple flavor to compensate.  Still, I’ve had much better versions elsewhere.

The place on Lake Boone Trail is not without its charms.  It’s a cozy space with cute little booths, and there’s a sizeable outdoor patio as well.  But the area where Chubby’s scores the most points is with its salsa bar.  There are about 10-12 different salsas to choose from, ranging from creamy avocado-tomatillo to fiery habanero.  With the exception of the ultra-hot ones (thankfully), I’ve found them to be extremely poorly labeled, if at all.  But that’s kind of part of the fun – try several and see which one you like the best.

Or, better yet, for a truly satisfying taco experience, get yourself over to La Vaquita or La Superior in Durham, or Fonda Y Birreria Jalisco in Raleigh, or one of the handful of other area taquerias.  Actually, there are two close to my house that I’ve yet to try: Taqueria El Toro in Raleigh and Taqueria Rancho Grande in Cary.  Those are next on my list.

Fonda Y Birreria Jalisco

I have little idea what the name of this restaurant means, but I can confidently call this one of the best Mexican restaurants in Raleigh.  And the value is unreal.  I recently had four tacos for dinner – for $6!  Along with plenty of chips and delicious salsa, it made for a huge cheap meal.  The standouts for me were al pastor tacos, with the carnitas close behind, and carne asada a not too distant third place.  These were easily some of the best al pastor tacos I’ve had.  My wife had the mole con pollo ($8), which was delectable shredded chicken bathed in a subtle, delicious orange-red sauce.  Less thrilling was the virtually saltless guacamole and a mole poblano that, being too chocolate-y, lacked some complexity.  Unlike many Mexican-American restaurants, where your food can arrive alarmingly quickly, here most everything seemed to be cooked to order.  The little bit longer wait for the food is well worth it.  I look forward to going back!

Taqueria La Vaquita (Durham, NC)

It makes for an odd site – a little shack with crude images of “tacos” and “tortas” painted on the side, a large cow (with bandaged ankles) standing on the roof – directly across the street from Four Square restaurant, one of the Triangle’s finest dining establishments.  But Durham’s Taqueria La Vaquita is easily one of my favorite Mexican food places in the entire Triangle.  You place your order at a small window that is much too low for comfortable conversation and then wait for your food at one of the picnic tables strewn about.  But pay no heed to the distinct lack of charming ambience, or the lengthy wait while your food is prepared.  One of the best things to order are the enchiladas.  Priced at around $9-11, you get four small enchiladas with rice and delicious beans, and it’s just about enough to feed two.  The enchiladas poblanos are exceptional, with a phenomenal mole sauce that is hands-down better than that from the Fiesta Grill, another popular local Mexican joint.  Or try the equally exquisite enchiladas rancheras or verde.  All incorporate the restaurant’s excellent house-made corn tortillas.  In colder weather, do not pass up the absolutely divine Mexican hot chocolate. La Vaquita boasts an extensive menu, and I look forward to sampling much more of it.  If only I lived closer.

Review: Dos Perros (Durham, NC)

Dos Perros is an upscale Mexican restaurant in Durham, a town noted for it’s abundance of quality authentic Mexican food.  It’s located in a gorgeous old yellow building on Mangum St. near the heart of downtown, with big windows and high ceilings.  The interior is nicely appointed, but not in an overly fussy way.  The restaurant is run by Charlie Deal, who also operates Jujube in Chapel Hill.  Although the cuisines are vastly different, the two restaurants share  a great balance of the fancy and the casual.  The walls are adorned with handmade rugs (presumably by Mexicans, though I did not note exactly) for sale, the tables are a lacquered plywood, and you can see the cooks bustling about in the kitchen.  On a recent Saturday night, the place was quiet at 6:30, with a few families here and there, but it was crowded (and remarkably loud) by 8pm or so.

Perhaps because we had a reservation for a large party, our table was set in advance with candles and glasses of water.  The preparation was nice, but not thorough.  I was missing a fork and menus were only placed in front of some of the seats.  Moreover, our waitress lacked a complete knowledge of the menu: when asked about the masa pudding, she asked to be shown where it was on the menu (only one place, as an accompaniment to the steak) before answering the question vaguely, and, when popusas were ordered for dinner (one of the night’s specials), she needed to check with the kitchen before confirming that it was indeed an entrée portion, not an appetizer.

Chips were brought to the table in large bowls and accompanied by a viscous green salsa.  The chips were very thick and I found them to be almost overcooked.  The salsa had a nice fresh taste but was likewise unmemorable.  Guacamole, on the other hand, was smooth, creamy, and good.  We also started with some excellent sweet potato/rice empanadas, which were bright orange and crispy, and accompanied by an addictive chipotle-fig sauce.  I though that the price of the empanadas, at $7 for two smallish ones, was a bit high.  For an entrée, I opted for one of the night’s specials: duck confit with mushroom ragu and cotija mashed potatoes ($17).  It was nicely portioned (on the small side) and utterly delicious.  The ragu was dark and smoky, the duck was tender and not greasy, and the potatoes were creamy and perfectly seasoned.  Thanks to our large party, I was also able to sample a handful of other dishes.  One other dish in particular really stood out for me – a chile-tamarind duck breast, served with a roasted new potato/poblano/green salsa mixture ($19).  This dish was perfectly portioned as well, and the duck was outrageously good, exquisitely cooked with a sweet skin.  On the other hand, my wife’s carnitas ($16) were flavorful enough, but a bit uninspiring.  And the aforementioned spicy beef popusas ($14), served as a gigantic portion, were fine but suffered a bit from a lack of a side item and, worse, a canned-tomato taste to the “grilled tomato jam” sauce.   A rib-eye steak ($22), was also enormous, but well cooked, and came doused in a very nice, subtle ancho-raisin sauce that allowed the flavor of the meat to stand on its own.  The accompanying masa pudding was quite delicious.

In the end, Dos Perros is another in the growing list of high quality Durham restaurants – on par with places like Piedmont and Watts Grocery in terms of excellence of ingredients and preparation.  If it succeeds just slightly less than Jujube, Deal’s Asian restaurant in Chapel Hill, it could be because there’s so much good Mexican food to be found in the area, and often at lower prices.  Durham’s taqueria scene, for example, is well documented, and places like La Vaquita, in particular, can astound with their offerings (if not with ambience).  For high-end Mexican food in the area, I’d rank Dos Perros far, far above Jibarra (Raleigh), just above Dos Taquitos Centro (also in Raleigh), and just below Tonali (Durham), the last of which I found to be fantastic.

Rating:  * * * *