When the Original El Taco first opened about a year ago, I was eager to try it. I would often drive past the building in Virginia Highland and think that a couple of tacos and a margarita sounded like a fine prospect.
Problem was, we always decided to go on the spur of the moment (”look, tacos!”) but could never get in.
The hostess would invariably suggest we wait in the bar, which was stuffed like a car full of circus clowns with a noisy singles set drinking “Fro Mos” (frozen mojitos). I saw where this was heading. People would tank up in the bar and then spill over into the dining room to sop up the sweet booze with tacos. I wanted a quick, cheap meal — not a scene.
So, we waited a year, and guess what?
It looks like the bib and stroller set has moved in.
The night we visit the bar is mostly empty, but families are at just about every table, and parents traipse through the dining room to accompany curious preschoolers to the salsa bar to dress their tacos.
This process is inexorable, and it always happens to low-key Mexican restaurants. When our kids were younger, we were among the vanguard of parents who family-friendlyized Taqueria del Sol in Decatur. We were good parents, I like to think: we didn’t demand high chairs, let our kids scream or insist it was “cute” if they chose to place their sticky fingers on nearby guests or play underfoot waiters with trays. But we recognized an answer to our weekday prayers (melted cheese, margaritas) at Taqueria, and like every other young family in Decatur, we pounced.
The folks at El Taco seem to have accepted this fate with good grace, judging by the prominently displayed kids’ menu. They even fed costumed tykes for free on Halloween.
I really don’t mind seeing children in restaurants like this at all. Sure, we are subjected to one ear-piercing shriek as a man holding an adorable, flailing little blonde girl walks by, making soothing shushing sounds as she tries to fling herself violently to the floor. But my wife and I have our tall margaritas — puckery, salty, perfectly balanced — and our inexpensive tacos. We’re copacetic.
We also have the worst seat in the house at a wobbly table under a too-bright light directly next to the salsa bar. But our excellent waiter manages to dewobble the table with a wad of napkins, all the while giving informed menu recommendations. The service here seems to be far better than you’d ever expect from a $3 taco joint.
The food is, you know, fine. Perfectly fine. I’m glad that I got the calabaza squash tamale on the waiter’s recommendation. The chunks of yellow squash are dense and meaty against the fluffy masa. The “just-crushed” guacamole is also good — chunky and well seasoned — though I’m not sure why it isn’t sexier. It’s almost too processed.
My wife gets a couple of grilled chicken tacos with avocado cream and really loves both the flavor and pleasant squish factor. My swordfish taco is too pungent (it smells fishier than it tastes), but a chorizo and yuca taco is one I’d order again and again.
The salsa bar, by the way, has plenty of salsas and salads, and I returned as often as the 6-year-old at the next table.
I don’t think I’d drive across town for this restaurant, but I’m definitely putting it on the “when in Va High” radar. Particularly since we were in and out for about $20 a person, tax and tip.
What do you think? Do you like this joint? Do kids drive you crazy — even in fun, casual restaurants like this one?