Amuse-bouche Taco Fundación, reviewed, and Nopalito
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