Amuse-bouche Taco Fun­dación, re­viewed, and Nopal­ito

TACO FUN­DACIÓN

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Lau­rel Glad­den For The New Mex­i­can

Over the course of three re­cent lunches, I sam­pled ev­ery taco on the menu at Taco Fun­dación, the new fast-food ven­ture from chef Brian Knox, lately of Shake Foun­da­tion fame. That’s 12 tacos, with a cou­ple of daily spe­cials thrown in. There’s some­thing sat­is­fy­ing about be­ing able to “eat the menu” without blow­ing a gas­tric gas­ket, and while shelling out three to four bucks for a taco isn’t ex­actly bar­gain shop­ping, you can still en­joy a fill­ing lunch without break­ing the bank.

Roughly eight years af­ter the demise of the sto­ried Es­calera, Knox founded the pop­u­lar Aqua Santa (in the space now oc­cu­pied by Bouche Bistro), which he helmed un­til 2012. He then stepped boldly into the green-chile-cheese­burger arena with Shake Foun­da­tion, the open-air burger-and-milk­shake joint on Cer­ril­los Road. You need se­ri­ous co­jones to be a non-na­tive New Mex­i­can (Knox is from Wis­con­sin) who bases a busi­ness on a leg­endary re­gional dish, but Knox has gar­nered a fol­low­ing, and he seems un­daunted about tack­ling an­other lo­cal spe­cialty, the taco. In that pur­suit, he took over the long­time home of Bert’s Burger Bowl, which shut its doors in 2015 af­ter 60-some­thing years in busi­ness.

At high noon, the line at Taco Fun­dación is of­ten out the door, but it moves fast. Ser­vice is speedy and ef­fi­ciently friendly. Af­ter a no-non­sense or­der-and­pay pro­ce­dure at the counter, you’ll walk away with a buzzer that’ll alert you when you can re­turn to pick up your or­der. No-frills seat­ing — stools at wood coun­ters, pic­nic ta­bles be­neath a por­tal, and some size­able red um­brel­las shad­ing a spa­cious com­mu­nity-style ta­ble along Guadalupe Street — seems de­signed for en­joy­ment of shade, breezes, and con­vivial tacore­lated ca­ma­raderie with fel­low Santa Feans.

On coun­ter­tops and ta­bles, two sal­sas — a rojo and a verde — are served in ba­sic plas­tic squirt bot­tles. Their slightly wa­tery and veg­e­tal con­sis­tency be­lies their full fla­vor and perky heat. Bev­er­age of­fer­ings in­clude Mex­i­can so­das and a chang­ing se­lec­tion of aguas fres­cas — on one visit, a vivid-fuch­sia wa­ter­melon and an ad­dic­tively re­fresh­ing ginger le­mon­ade that walked a tightrope of sour and sweet. Not ev­ery restau­rant wants or can af­ford a beer and wine li­cense, I un­der­stand, but in the heat of a mid­sum­mer day, fish taco in hand, I would’ve paid a pretty penny for an ice-cold Paci­fico or Modelo Espe­cial.

The build­ing is a beloved lo­cal land­mark. The chef is well known and has a solid ré­sumé. The menu is var­ied, and veg­e­tar­i­an­ism is given more than a pass­ing thought. In­gre­di­ents and com­bi­na­tions are ei­ther ut­terly clas­sic (mole, bar­ba­coa, al pas­tor, and Baja-style fish are an­chors) or mod­ernly icon­o­clas­tic — at least when it comes to tacos (sweet pota­toes, pine nuts, kale, and baby ar­ti­chokes all make ap­pear­ances). So why wasn’t I blown away? Taco Fun­dación seems like the food equiv­a­lent of a “good-on-pa­per” guy — the one who has great cre­den­tials, but the spark’s just not there. Dat­ing ex­perts tell you to move on, so you turn him down for a hot guy who rides a mo­tor­cy­cle in­stead.

Knox of­fers a trio of vegetarian tacos, all of which cer­tainly sound in­trigu­ing. The com­bi­na­tion of sweet potato, gar­licky kale, twangy pine nuts, and jolt­ingly saline cotija gets points for nu­tri­tional con­sid­er­a­tions, but it seemed more like a cre­ative way to use Thanks­giv­ing leftovers than a stroke of taco bril­liance. The sub­tlety of av­o­cado, potato, and ar­ti­choke com­bined to cre­ate a fill­ing soft and mild to the point of be­ing nearly fla­vor­less. Por­to­bello mush­rooms and onions had an en­joy­able earth­i­ness but an un­for­tu­nate slip­pery slick­ness; the Oax­aca cheese was too mel­low to of­fer any in­ter­est­ing con­trast, though the cilantro sauce brought fruity, veg­e­tal bright­ness. A combo of beans, green chile, and more Oax­aca cheese was a dis­ap­point­ment, the beans dra­mat­i­cally un­der­sea­soned, the chile lack­ing any no­tice­able heat. All of these tacos cried out for salt.

The one lovely ex­cep­tion was a daily spe­cial, a gor­geous tan­gle of golden squash blos­soms, pur­ple onion, firm white ker­nels of corn, an emer­ald sauce, and milky Oax­aca cheese. It was ro­bust but not over­whelm­ing, tex­tu­rally in­trigu­ing, skill­fully sea­soned, and the ephemeral epit­ome of sum­mer.

Meats fared bet­ter. Chicken in a deep red-black mole was rich to the point of re­sem­bling pork. The sauce was ex­pect­edly com­plex, if a bit too sweet, and gen­er­ously ap­plied. The al pas­tor pork — look­ing so de­light­fully like “the other white meat” that at first glance I mis­took it for chicken — was del­i­cately spicy and pleas­antly fruity, though it could use more of a pineap­ple punch. The braised beef bar­ba­coa was gor­geous and uber-ten­der, though its tum­bling of vi­brant, chunky pico de gallo pointed to the tex­tu­ral va­ri­ety that many of the other tacos were miss­ing. The bi­son taco was the most well rounded and full-bod­ied of the bunch, with corn, Oax­aca cheese, and av­o­cado crema.

Notwith­stand­ing Santa Fe’s lack of a shore­line, seafood shines at Taco Fun­dación. Sauces feel

dan­ger­ously over­ap­plied, but at least each taco gets some snappy con­trast from a small clutch of cab­bage. Sub­stan­tial chunks of flaky white fish don a coat of crisp, clingy crust that with­stands a heavy dous­ing of chipo­tle aioli. On a sec­ond visit, the kitchen mis­tak­enly mopped our fish with tangy av­o­cado crema in­stead. It still threat­ened to over­power the fish, but we pre­ferred its dairy smooth­ness and cit­rus tang, which seemed more in keep­ing with the fish taco’s Baja roots.

Small pink poached shrimp met plain shred­ded cab­bage and av­o­cado crema in a de­light­fully sim­ple taco — oddly re­call­ing the shrimp sal­ads of my grand­mother’s coun­try club lun­cheons (and I mean that in the best way). The fried oys­ter taco was the win­ner, the bi­valve’s briny funk com­ing through loud and clear, de­spite a sin­cerely sea­soned crust and a heavy slather­ing of chipo­tle mayo. These tacos can be messy, so be sure to grab nap­kins.

All of which is a rather round­about way of say­ing that I like Taco Fun­dación, but I don’t love it. This isn’t a place where I’d com­pul­sively In­sta­gram my lunch or drag out-of-town vis­i­tors straight off the plane — at least not yet. But tastes in tacos are about as per­sonal as tastes in dates, so maybe I should just move on. But who knows what the fu­ture will bring? A guy on a mo­tor­cy­cle is fleet­ing, but the love of a good taco is for­ever.

Squash blos­som taco

Fish and fried oys­ter taco

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