Tom has always lamented the unimaginative nature of the Mexican restaurants here. Traditionally they have been American food with a Mexican twist, rather than real Mexican food like one would find in Mexico. Our Southern neighbor is said to have some terrific world-class cuisine that never makes its way north. The theory behind this phenomenon is that we recognize Mexican food as a cheap ethnic thing, and anyone who tries to break out of that mold is doomed to failure.
In the last seven years or so, a few places have indeed upped their game. The arrival on the scene of Johnny Sanchez, a collaboration of John Besh and Aaron Sanchez, touched off a tiny proliferation of Mexican restaurants in a hipper, more modern mode.
All of these restaurants are in New Orleans, and one is in Covington. The last place I would expect to see one of these upgraded Mexican restaurants is where Metairie turns to Kenner, the land of the humble and truly authentic Mom and Pop-style ethnic eateries.
Tacos Del Cartel showed up last year near a billboard on David Drive. Its colorful logo and Day Of The Dead skeletons aroused curiosity about this new place. Two blocks from the billboards the restaurant is a visual letdown outside. Clearly a refurbished fast food drive thru joint, the curb appeal for Tacos Del Cartel is underwhelming.
But inside, the space is cozy, hip, charming, and Instagrammable. The transformation is remarkable. There are only a few tables in a very dark room. Most of the building is the kitchen. To the left of the entrance is a tiny bar ending in a curved wall with the instantly-hip fake green ground cover on the wall, with pink neon writing embedded. Tables are arrayed in a way as to make best use of very limited space, but it is still very tight in here. There is a really tiny and adorable outdoor space with as much seating as inside, separated from the parking by a tall fence. It is impressive the way any bit of space was maximized.
The menu at Tacos Del Cartel is smallish, and not particularly unusual or adventuresome, but what is there is good.
Chips and salsa are provided, but refills are extra. There are four salsas on the menu, and they are very different. There is Salsa Verde, Salsa de Arbol, with pineapple notes, Salsa Brava with jalapeno, and the spiciest and best in my opinion, Salsa del Patron, with Serrano chiles.
The chips were absolutely nondescript, but I liked them very much. They were mildly thick, very crunchy, and unremarkable looking. But they crunched well with everything and had no special characteristic other than that. These were purely a vessel for more interesting flavors.
I got choriqueso, which I must get everywhere. This had a great consistency and ivory color, with copious amounts of chorizo that had no strong flavor, but it was good. It was a meaty chorizo rather than a spicy one, and it had vegetables in it that rounded it out just so.
The guacamole was one of the best I’ve had. The flavor of lime was borderline overpowering, but lime is a delicious refreshing flavor, so who could complain? This guacamole was a little too smooth for my preferences, but the taste was irresistible.
I got the taco combo, which consisted of a choice of three tacos, with two sides. I chose chicken tinga, a mistake I repeatedly make, brisket, and carnitas. All were served on warm corn tortillas, an adequate amount of meat, and a distracting amount of chopped vegetables. These were all flavorful, even the chicken tinga. The yellow rice that accompanied the tacos was perfectly fine but just that. The pureed black beans were much better, smooth and creamy and topped with some grated cheese. I also ordered charro beans but that seemed more like a bean soup. Tom liked that a lot.
The fajitas appear to be a popular item. These are very large platters, running $21-$24. We skipped these in favor of something called a Cali Burrito. This is a massive thing that I don’t understand any more than the Chipotle football-sized wrap filled with an absurd amount of items. This one was prettier, and napped all over with queso, garnished just so.
I chose birria, and finally came to the conclusion I like short ribs intact. Shredded short ribs are a mess and completely bastardize something expensive, delicate, and really really delicious. Birria, no matter how trendy it is, seems a waste of some great meat.
Inside this large mass of burrito was a pile of vegetables, including of all things, krinkle cut fries. I could swear there was a dash of turmeric in that burrito, but it was so subtle as to not wreck it. Or it could have been a mix of Mexican spices like cumin. But the telltale yellow color was also a hint, oozing out from the bottom just a bit. This was good enough if you are partial to massive amounts of things rolled into a flour tortilla.
Another thing that impressed me was the corn tortillas wrapped in foil that accompanied the order. These were toasted and charred around the edges, and warm, a surprising and very appealing touch.
Tacos Del Cartel is a welcome addition to the Mexican food dining scene. It is fun, hip, exciting, and certainly 2021. They are not doing anything unusual. They are giving a fresh update to the normal things on a menu like this. And they are doing it in an environment that makes you feel you are eating something fresh and new and automatically good.
All of that is true, and in this neighborhood, that is exciting.