Mexican light

"I say it looks like Sputnik," says one of my dining companions, sloshing a Modelo Especial in one of Taco Diner's stubby square tumblers. "No, no," says someone else. "A moored sea mine." I thought it looked like the head of a mace, the spiked battle club used in medieval times to tear and crush armor. Or maybe a bisected, toothed disco ball.

Whatever it resembled--indeed, whatever it was--the thing was sure strange. Several of them--half-spheres with perforations in their smooth metallic skin from which brightly colored plastic spines protruded--dangled in the windows. These were dissonant touches in this chichi, minimalist diner. Elsewhere, curvaceous, flowing lines and soft taupes and ivories are lightly pricked and prodded by odd decorative elements (a metal washtub perched in back). Hard surfaces and softened stark touches such as lavender plastic chairs and brushed metal ceiling fans create a "Tech-Mex" ambiance. Old Mexican movie posters, originally produced on linen, have been reprinted and hung behind the counter.

Yet maybe that Commie space probe Sputnik, which launched the space race in 1957 and whose name means "traveling companion" in Russian, is the appropriate symbol for Taco Diner. It certainly is a restaurant conducive to companionship. The suggestion is right there at the top of the menu, urging diners to order from several taco groups and share.

Plus, the menu is as cryptic as the Russian language and as efficient as the Soviet bureaucracy. While it refers to "several taco groups" from which to select, it never clearly says what a taco group is. Tacos aren't broken out as a category from the nachos, soups, and salads. So you have to study closely to decode the thing and then mark your choices on a checklist to order. We gave up after a few minutes and asked our server for help.

The menu is also dizzyingly jarring to the eye. The typeface for menu headings is illegible, and the lines are set so close together that it's hard to decipher the descriptions without running your finger across the menu and moving your lips as you go. Taco groups are designated by protein type: pollo (chicken), carne (beef), puerco (pork), and pescado (fish). Group selections can be ordered in one of two ways: standard (three tacos) and traditional (five tacos). And there are two to three variations within each group--al pastor (prepared with an achiote-citrus marinade that tinges meats orange) and Americano (served with white cheese over flour tortillas), for example. Pork tacos are available "trompa"-style, with rotisserie-roasted meat.

Taco Diner founders Michael "Mico" Rodriguez and the M Crowd Restaurant Group (Mi Cocina, The Mercury, Mainstream Fish House) tout the restaurant as an authentic Mexico City taqueria. And just as the decor is a mix of conflicting elements, the food is ambivalence expressed in muted fundamental flavors (corn tortillas and subtly seasoned meats) matched with highly charged condiments (a trio of salsas, diced onion, finely chopped cilantro, roasted diced jalapenos, and Key limes). Play, modify, tweak, and alter, because these tacos, served open-face, can be dull as hell without culinary cosmetology. Chicken al pastor, chunks of dry meat, was almost a yawner dressed in its elusive marinade. Fajita beef tacos were far better. Well trimmed, chewy, rich, juicy, void of gristle--they were everything fajita meat generally isn't. Achiote-citrus-marinated pork was nearly as understated as the chicken. Yet somehow its moist chunks emerged with a fascinating soft muskiness. Equally absorbing in its hushed tones is the side of crisply bland cole slaw scented with light vinaigrette that quietly begets a barely perceptible tug-of-war between gentle surges of tang and sweet.

Only the fish was dramatically knocked off course. Bathed in achiote-citrus marinade, tilapia, the chosen species, showed little flavor other than its firmly moist and delicately sweet self. But it stood its ground nobly, ably bracing for any onion or jalapeno or salsa scattered its way. On a second visit, this construction collapsed in a mess of mushy, wooly fish cubes.

Non-taco items seemed tuned to a higher pitch, which isn't to say the tacos don't work well. They were just inconsistent.

Cream of smoked poblano pepper soup, a bowl of lime-green silk sludge rendered from heavy whipping cream, poblano peppers, celery, and onions was smooth but lightly flavored (smokiness was scarcely detectable). Shredded white cheese and a pair of peppers dimpled the surface.

Cobb salad stunned. A silo of crisp lettuce bound together with creamy avocado and topped with strips of moist grilled chicken rested in a puddle of dressing that was an anchovy-less variation on traditional Caesar. It was politely surly, as everything in this place is. Even the grilled manchego cheese crisp, a delicately brittle dairy log, bristled with imaginative crackle. It's made by frying a mixture of cheeses and then rolling the goo into a pipe after the heat gives it some backbone. The resultant conduit is orange, tangy, crisp, and not the least bit greasy. You could even say it's potently flavored, as far as potency goes here for everything that isn't a garnish.

Taco Diner offers a host of Mexican bastardizations and Tex-Mex fodder. M Crowd folk say Dallasites demand this stuff: rice, beans, chips, nachos. Only here they take on uncommon elegance, especially the nachos. They're not a mangled pile of crap that lumbers in pointless pastiness. These nachos are tight little compositions, elegantly fashioned on single tortilla chips: beans, cheese, chicken, guacamole, sour cream, paprika dust.

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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