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!

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.

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.

Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours

Wouldn’t it be cool to have your own food guide – to help you find the best taqueria, for example, or barbecue, or local cheese?  Wouldn’t it also be cool to chat with the chefs who make the local dining scene so exciting – to learn more about their menus, sources, and secrets?  To spend an afternoon with someone with the knowledge and connections to introduce you to the best of the best in local food?

This is all possible through a great new company called Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.  Joe Philippose and Lesley Starcks founded the company with the idea to take people behind the scenes, to find the hidden gems and local favorites, and, simply, to eat the best food that North Carolina has to offer.

The company offers walking tours of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, in addition to myriad other possibilities.  Venture out with Joe and Lesley for tapas hour, for example, or on a tour of the area’s best taquerias, or create your own customized tour in consultation with Taste Carolina.  Tours run during the week and on the weekends and generally cost $30-$40/person.

My wife and I recently joined the “Durham Taqueria Caravan”, which took us to four of Durham’s best authentic Mexican spots.  Over the course of a few hours, we feasted on outrageous enchiladas mole and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, tacos with countless fillings, sweet Horchata (rice milk drink with sugar and cinnamon), marvelous fried quesadillas and aguas frescas, and topped it off with a round of Mexican desserts.  By the end, I was completely stuffed, and I loved it.

Check it out at:

http://www.tastecarolina.net