BY PETE TITTL
Readers told me I was missing a treat by not sampling the simple, authentic tacos at Los Tacos De Huicho, right next to Casa Munoz on Union Avenue. I do appreciate emails like that because I don't like missing worthy dining experiences, and though this place is the dictionary definition of humble, it might be worth a visit if you like authentic, inexpensive Mexican food.
You order at a counter near the front, and there is a list of meats (asada, chile verde, pastor (pork), barbacoa, shrimp, fish, tripas (tripe) and cabeza (cow's head tacos -- which could entail tongue, brains or meat -- something I've been too smart to order).
You can get tacos (99 cents), burritos ($6.79), tortas ($5.99), nachos ($6.99), flautas ($4.99) or sopes ($1.99). There's also menudo and beer, but no wine. I ordered tacos made with barbacoa, asada and shrimp, as well as a plate of rice and beans ($2.69), while my companion selected a burrito made from chile verde ($6.79).
It was pretty satisfying, if not dazzling. My favorite was the shrimp taco, made with deep-fried shrimp presented Baja style (cabbage, the creamy/spicy sauce). The asada was simple but not as greasy as the barbacoa, a condition I remedied by the old-fashioned vertical drip system. Everything was served on disposable plates, and there was a salsa bar near the door where you could doctor up your food with onions, cilantro and a couple of salsas. My companion's burrito was fine, but we wished for more chile verde in the mix. The pork was very tender and moderately spicy, and the tortilla had a fresh tenderness that was quite appealing.
There is a bar in the back of the dining room but no one was manning it during our visit. We saw a lot of Mexican beers in the cooler -- perhaps it's a weekend thing. There was a patio to the right as you enter through the front. The tile floor of the elevated dining room was impressive, and the seating was on simple wooden tables. The food was prepared quickly, but there's not much of a system to alert you when it's done. Just a wave from the counter man.
While in the area I noted another newish Mexican restaurant, Baja Marlin, located in what was the longtime home to Ruben's before it moved downtown. I was a bit leery because the last occupant didn't last long enough for my review to run, and the restaurant in the building before that lasted only a year. But Baja Marlin is trying something different. Sure, a lot of places have seafood, but one of their specialties is smoked marlin. Maybe I've led a sheltered life, but I haven't seen this fish in too many local restaurants. Everyone knows what a marlin looks like -- that kind of trophy fish on the wall -- but the smoked version is lean and typically flavored by sugar and soy sauce in the cooking process. I've found marlin in the past to be a lean, meaty, uninteresting fish.
But what this restaurant does is fascinating. They create a stew of sorts, a guisado, with the marlin mixed with black olives, onion, cilantro, chili peppers and tomatoes. I sampled this in a "Governador" taco ($3.95), a large creation that includes the stew, a slice of Monterey jack cheese and shrimp, all lightly grilled like a quesadilla after assembly. This is a bold creation that I think will end up as a love-it-or-hate-it thing. But if you've been to Hawaii or Baja, where smoked marlin is more common, you've gotta try this place. (You can get the smoked marlin guisado as an entree if you don't like the taco idea.)
We sampled other items, such as the tostada plate with shredded beef (chicken is available, $8.99) and my companion's choice, the shrimp with creamy chipotle sauce ($12.95). The pair of tostadas were not the giant shell-holding-a-salad variety, but two regular crispy corn tortillas with a smear of refried beans to hold the generous portion of beef, buried under shredded lettuce, a dusting of cheese and pico de gallo. The shrimp were graced by a buttery, spicy, sinfully rich sauce on eight large shrimp in an oval dish with refried beans and a mound of white rice (convenient for soaking up that sauce). It was stunningly rich, and should be ordered only by true butter lovers.
The restaurant's interior has been totally redone in an orange and green color scheme, very clean and fresh. There are the usual suspects of Mexican beers available, but my companion's white wine, while a generous pour, tasted like an indistinctive box variety.
Service was solid, even though it looked like only one woman was working and at least four other parties were dining while we visited.