Mexican light

Taco Diner tries to marry subtlety with Tex-Mex -- somehow, it works

Still other things happen here. De Paris is a portobello mushroom taco with squash flower blossoms (rare things these, emanating from hard squash), bonded in a light white cheese. Tortilla tubes really, they proved light, earthy, and agile with a stroke of sweetness. No goo. No sop.

Taco Diner is trying to do a hard thing: capture the provocative thread in Mexican cuisine that is so often buried in weight and heat, choked in Tex-Mex mortar. There are bumps, but in the end it works.

It was nearly a year ago that I received a press release that said this: Panera Bread will be baking every day of the week and nearly every hour of the day. That didn't help me much on my first visit. It was out of virtually every specialty bread save for the tomato-basil and the rosemary focaccia. No matter. We made do, which you can do here.

The surroundings are bright and warm, with a pair of overstuffed leather chairs and "outlets for laptops and large tables to accommodate meetings," the release points out. This makes subbing breads a bit more bearable (slapping the asiago beef sandwich between a French roll instead of the asiago cheese bread, for example) because you can do it while opening a spreadsheet or losing an appendage while playing Hexen II on the computer. But even the right bread could not have saved the thing. The beef was stringy and not at all helped by the smoked cheddar, the flaccid, faded tomato slices, or even the horseradish sauce.

The Tuscan chicken sandwich, packed between two pieces of rosemary focaccia, featured moist chicken mizzled in semi-vibrant pesto mayo humming with a balsamic vinaigrette twang, but was weeded with slimy, rotting field greens.

Other things rescued this prodigious baker, however. Save for the furry tomatoes, the bacon turkey bravo on moist, tasty tomato-basil bread kicked out a pleasing smoky flavor and lots of moist turkey. Chicken oriental salad had juicy chicken strips, crisp chow mein noodles, and vinaigrette that bantered with satisfyingly sweet, nutty discourse. Greek salad was generous in its offering of pitted kalamatas and moist crumbled feta. But the dressing was out of whack--all sharpness and no finesse. The Caesar was duller than a presidential apology.

An 80-plus-unit bakery-deli chain based in St. Louis, the company hopes to open 500 units within five years through an aggressive franchise program, my aging press release states. Let's hope that they buck up that baking schedule too.

Taco Diner. 4011 Villanova in Preston Center, (214) 696-4944, Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. $-$$

Panera Bread. 14902 Preston Road, No. 512, (972) 392-3533. Open 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. $-$$

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