Restaurant Review: Felipe’s Tacos
Have you seen the BuzzFeed video showing Mexicans tasting Taco Bell food for the first time? They sample the Beefy Fritos Burrito, the Nacho Cheese Doritos Loco Taco, and the Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch, among other things. Near the end of the video, one young woman says, “I can’t describe what I just ate, because it’s not Mexican food.”
She wouldn’t have that problem at Felipe’s Tacos — a cute little corner space in a strip of shops behind the Chevron station on St. Michael’s Drive. There’s been a lot of debate in food circles lately about what qualifies as “authentic” cuisine, and while I don’t know that what Felipe’s serves would strike Mexican natives as strictly authentic cuisine, it’s a lot closer to it than anything pumped out by Taco Bell.
Proprietor Felipe Martinez grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Santa Fe in the early 1990s, when he opened a restaurant to serve “fresh, health-conscious, family-style recipes” inspired by his mother’s cooking. The ambience here is far from fancy, but the space is clean and bright, with the palette of the Mexican flag. The white walls are accented with sombreros, and there are towers of quarter-devouring machines dispensing toys and limeade-flavored gumballs. The staff is sometimes quiet but always congenial (and patient during those times when you just can’t make up your mind). Felipe himself is often behind the counter.
You can pick up a laminated menu or choose what you want from the old-school letter board on the wall. When your food is ready — most things are served on paper plates or in little red-and-white paper “boats” — someone calls the number on your ticket, and you scurry to the counter to pick it up. On your way back to your seat, don’t forget to stop at one of the countertop salsa bars.
Here, plastic molcajete-style bowls are stocked with tangy salsa verde and a robust, spicy red (don’t let the watery consistency fool you), along with fresh lime wedges, cilantro, chopped onion, and sometimes radish. You can go back for as much of these tasty condiments as your heart desires (if you order takeout, you can ask for a couple of small plastic containers to fill up). The pico de gallo is off the hook — it’s my favorite thing to scoop up with a salty corn tortilla chip. I often buy the stuff by the pint, and it’s been known to disappear within 24 hours.
Sodas are available from the fountain dispenser or the refrigerated cooler in the center of the dining room, but Felipe’s also makes its own horchata and limeade. The limeade is incredibly thirst-quenching, walking the tightrope between sour and sweet. Be careful, or you might suck it all down before your food even makes it to the table.
Unlike many other versions in town, the guacamole isn’t studded with tomato, onion, or jalapeño. Instead, it’s beautiful and simple: smooth and creamy and just tangy and garlicky enough. If you order chips with it, they’ll be fantastically salty white corn strips.
The quesadillas are practically perfect; tender, flakily layered flour tortillas folded over loads of mild cheese and generous fillings. My chicken version was crowded with good-sized dices of meat that had a strong, rich, almost gamey flavor similar to turkey.
The wall menu proudly proclaims, “Felipe’s Tacos is health conscious for you!” The kitchen doesn’t use lard, and, overall, wholesome foods seem to be what it does best. The no-carne burrito is one of my favorite things in all of Santa Fe. It’s about as big as a forearm and filled with mild red rice, refritos, cheese, large hunks of avocado, and lettuce. It leaves you feeling simultaneously full and virtuous and is the sort of dish that proves meat isn’t required for food to be satisfying and big on flavor. The no-carne tacos — small tortillas with a schmear of refritos, some grated cheese, and a dice or two of avocado — are a little less inspired, and definitely messier, but filling nevertheless.
The plate of al pastor (a “shepherd-style” preparation of pork that’s related to shawarma) was fine but not especially memorable; it lacked the fruity tang often characteristic of that dish. The beef tacos are a bare-bones affair, small corn tortillas enveloping nicely chopped meat and nothing else — whether they contain cheese, beans, guac, lettuce, or salsa of any sort is entirely up to you. On one visit, the tortillas were leathery and tough, while on another, they fell apart before the tacos could make it to our mouths.
Felipe’s has its strong suits, and it also makes some missteps. Regardless, it’s a convenient, cheerful place run by friendly people who want you to eat good, reasonably healthy food. They don’t always achieve their goals, but I’d still choose anything they serve over a Loco Taco any day of the week.