Restau­rant Re­view Baja Tacos

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Lau­rel Glad­den

Baja Tacos — a sin­gle-room shack in the heart of the con­crete wilder­ness of Cer­ril­los Road — de­scribes it­self on Face­book as “Santa Fe’s ‘lit­tle se­cret,’” but I’m not sure how clan­des­tine you can be with a clus­ter of ca­nary yel­low um­brel­las out front and vivid red let­ters broad­cast­ing “4 TACOS $5.”

At any given hour, the drive-through might be five or six cars deep, but it moves quickly, and a steady stream of walkins flows into the tiny space. Once cus­tomers have picked up their or­ders, some of them will re­turn to their cars, while oth­ers wan­der out, pa­per bags full of pip­ing hot good­ies, to a con­crete ta­ble un­der a bright um­brella. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and a cool breeze might be blow­ing. If you squint, you might con­vince your­self for a minute that you’re at a beach in Baja.

Two to three peo­ple usu­ally staff the kitchen and counter, and they are all friendly, help­ful, and in­cred­i­bly quick. I barely had time to check my Instagram feed be­fore my or­der was ready. At peak hours, who­ever’s at the reg­is­ter ping-pongs be­tween the front and the drive-through in an im­pres­sive dis­play of on-your-feet mul­ti­task­ing.

True to its name, the “ba­con roll bur­rito” swad­dles a bunch of ba­con, chile, and cheese (but no egg) in a flour tor­tilla; you can add hash browns for a lit­tle ex­tra. It’s spicy, smoky, and in­cred­i­bly salty — prob­a­bly not the sort of thing to eat on a regular ba­sis un­less you have an ac­tive life­style, very low blood pres­sure, or a pre­scrip­tion for Lip­i­tor.

Baja also has a stan­dard break­fast bur­rito — mean­ing one that in­cludes egg and doesn’t have to in­clude ba­con (or any other meat, for that mat­ter, though the menu sug­gests sev­eral). It of­fers a nice equi­lib­rium of soft egg, mild cheese, spicy chile, and hash browns with en­joy­able crisp bits.

As you would hope, though, tacos are re­ally where it’s at. We tried many (easy to do at un­der $3 each), in­clud­ing a modestly tin­gling carne adovada; bean and tofu, a sloppy, gloppy, but wel­come meat-free op­tion; and the soft, full-fla­vored chicken, which won for its rich, gamey, musky fla­vor. Each can be gar­nished with shred­ded let­tuce, diced tomato, and grated cheese. When we vis­ited, a four-fish-taco spe­cial was avail­able. Rather than be­ing fried, in tra­di­tional Baja style, the meat was more of the lean, spice-dusted, grid­dled sort. The crunchy hard shell is stan­dard, but on a re­turn visit, I heard the staff of­fer a soft op­tion to an­other cus­tomer; it’s good to know that’s avail­able. The side of fire-en­gine-red salsa is fresh-tast­ing, tangy, and pleas­antly spicy.

The taquitos — chicken or beef — are thor­oughly deep­fried and popular. They’re crisp and greasy, but a dunk in Baja’s salsa cuts right through. It’s kind of hard to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween the meats un­til you take a bite, and this is def­i­nitely not health food. But it might fill the bill if you’ve had one too many mar­gar­i­tas the night be­fore or you’re just crav­ing greasy food.

Menu items other than tacos are heav­ier and less in­ter­est­ing. Our en­chi­lada was thor­oughly smoth­ered in chile, but the cheese in­side it wasn’t melted at all. The sides of re­fried beans (they’re de­scribed as “pinto beans,” so I ex­pected whole fri­joles) and Span­ish rice made this a gen­er­ous and mul­ti­col­ored plate, but both were bland, dry, and for­get­table.

The menu in­cludes bur­ri­tos, too. Baja is very much a “have it your way” kind of place — I overheard a cus­tomer ask­ing for her bur­rito to be filled with carne adovada and noth­ing else, but oth­ers (like me) pre­fer “ev­ery­thing,” which means let­tuce, onion, tomato, cheese, and chile. We went full throt­tle with the gut-bomb­ing chile rel­leno bur­rito, which is cer­tainly fill­ing, but I found it overly soft and oddly bland.

The burger combo meal gets you a lot of food for your money. The hand­some hand­made patty, slathered in cheese and chile (green, nat­u­rally), shares its wide industrial bun with let­tuce and tomato. The combo also in­cludes a heap of thick golden fries and a 32-ounce drink.

Your re­ceipt will re­mind you of Baja’s daily un­der-$5 deals. “How can they do that?” it asks, and you sort of won­der if they’re read­ing your mind. I try not to think about how this stuff can be so cheap. Look, I get it. Fast food may not be healthy, but it can be emo­tion­ally sat­is­fy­ing; some­times you just want a taco. And as we sat un­der an um­brella, wip­ing salsa from our lips, one of my friends de­clared, “Baja Tacos: It’s cheap, it’s good, it’s fast, it’s hot, and it’s clean. If you want tacos — Amer­i­can-style tacos — why wouldn’t you eat here?”

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