(where North Alamo Street ends)
I haven't figured out, yet, why it is that almost all the taquerías in Loopland are so mediocre, while almost all the places inside the Loop are so good. Could it be that a certain amount of time is required for a taco house to acquire ... what? A layer of grease on everything in the kitchen? I don't think that's what it is.
There are, of course, a few mediocre places inside the Loop — two come to mind, in my own neighbourhood — but I have yet to find any — any — good taquerías outside of 410, until you get to Comal County. (If anybody has a suggestion, by all means, let me hear it.)
Today, feeling my curmudgeonly oats, I had a hankering to find a place not to like. I wanted something to grouse about, something mediocre or worse, something that'd make me want to rant about just how bad a restaurant could be. I had no place in mind, but just struck out at random, with my sidekick; we headed towards Broadway, because he had some business over there, and that was sufficient excuse.
The place we settled was Carmelita's, in a former fast-food restaurant in the triangle of land where Alamo Street runs into Broadway. The old Butter Krust Bakery is across the avenue, in the throes of renovation, and the ruins of Playland Park lie across Alamo. A promising setting for a culinary horror story, I thought.
Alas, no. I liked it.
It being our first visit to this place, which neither of us had ever heard of before (or, for that matter, even noticed on any of our frequent trips up and down Broadway), we both ordered what we consider our "usuals." For me, that's one chilaquile taco and one machacado taco; I asked for the former in a flour tortilla, the latter in a corn tortilla. My Kato went for one beef fajita and one picadillo, both in flour. We both had coffee.
All the windows in the place face north and west. I suppose in the afternoon it might get hot in the dining room, but they close at 3pm, and I doubt ghosts and burglars would complain. In the morning, the shade of the building and the trees outside make a pleasant setting. The dining room tables, chairs, floors and walls all appear clean, and the blue-and-white Poblano-style table tops add to that feeling. The whole place looks to have had a new coat of paint recently. (I don't know how long the place has been around, but it looked, generally, fresh and new; though I know it has health inspections going back over three years.)
The coffee was reasonably strong, without an acidic bite; the way we both like it. And it was hot but not excessively so; we've recently had some issues with scalding coffee, so that was a plus for Carmelita's. The service was cheerful and prompt, and everything was correct when it came. The staff were assiduous about keeping everyone in the place (and it was nearly full) supplied with anything they wanted.
The first thing I noticed on the menu was the price of coffee. Normally, I don't even look at this, and am always being unpleasantly surprised at what people charge for it. With the rise of the Seattle-style coffeehouse, prices for even ordinary coffee have steadily climbed, so that it's not unusual to pay $1.69 or so for what used to be described as "coffee service." Usually it's not really worth that, but people seem conditioned to making mental comparisons between diner coffee and Starbucks, where a single cup of coffee requires mortgage financing. That's not a valid comparison, of course, even if you like Starbucks coffee (which, I don't). But Carmelita's charges only $1.25 for coffee service (and I do mean service), and I noticed that their prices for my tacos were slightly less than I've become accustomed to paying elsewhere, no matter how bad they are. Not a big savings, but it adds up, especially when you eat them several times a week, as I tend to do.
|Last city inspection: June 2011|
The picadillo was good, but not great. I'd say the same about the chilaquiles. And the flour tortillas used on three of our four tacos were what Mexicans call regulár — ordinary, neither bad nor particularly good. Fortunately for this place's ratings, the other foods we sampled stood out as better than most.
The beef fajitas were leaner than is usual, yet not the least bit dry. They were served with a plentiful, though not overwhelming, quantity of grilled peppers and onions, and lightly doused with a delicious sauce. And my machacado taco was perhaps the second-best I've ever eaten, and it was wrapped in a good-sized corn tortilla, made in-house, that Goldilocks would have been pleased with: of even thickness, cohesive, heated through but not burned at any point, and more flavourful than is, strictly-speaking, normal — all qualities that will endear the things to anglos and hispanicos alike.
My good friend Kato, a/k/a Rick, who generally accompanies me on my taco quests, lives out in Loopland, so we've tried to find good places located in between our houses. It's getting harder and harder to justify going to some of them. There are so many more really good taco houses closer to downtown. Carmelita's makes it just that much harder to meet in between.