My favorite dining companion put it this way: Urban Taco sounds like something you'd order from the J. Peterman catalog.
He's onto something. Think cute but functional. Trendy but not pushy. A little on the pricey side. But you want it anyway.
Urban Taco fits all of those categories, and it's also a smart fit in its home between Victoria's Secret and a blue jeans boutique on the east side of Mockingbird Station. Fashioned after the casual walk-up taquerias and puestos seen around Mexico City, the smallish restaurant glows with warm caramel-toned booths and sleek versions of Equipal barrel chairs. Banquette seating is accented with splashes of brown and turquoise on soft throw pillows. On one wall, a mirror reflects the room, giving the illusion of deeper space. An abstract artwork of a stack of tortillas hangs on another wall; a row of smooth beige tree trunks lines a third. It's a comfy atmosphere in which to partake of some comfort food.
Orders are placed at the bar, with dishes delivered to the table. There's plenty of time to have a drink before the meal. The full bar produces a decent margarita, though the $6.50 price puts a frown on happy hour. The mojito, though, tastes mo' like sour minty lime juice. "I probably didn't shake it up enough," says the manager-bartender with an indifferent shrug when we're asked how it was. On the alcohol-free front, there are fruit-flavored aguas made like those on old-fashioned ice carts. Sodas and beer are poured into tall, chilled glasses.
When the food comes out of the kitchen at last, little glitches are evident. Dishes don't flow as they logically should—soup arrives after entrée (and without a spoon), tacos are presented before salads. One appetizer, the cone of fried manchego called a chicharrón de queso, shows up after everything else has rolled out. And why are we being rushed to order dessert before we've even had our first bite?
Once it's all on the table, however, almost all of the herky-jerkiness is forgotten. The menu crafted by Chef Fernando Huerta (formerly a sous chef at Stephan Pyles) offers a mini-fiesta of flavors that have little to do with the heavy yellow cheeses and swampy refrieds of Tex-Mex combo plates, and nothing in common with the grease-laden crunchies tossed into bags at fast-food windows. This is a gringo-ized adaptation of Mexican street food, glossied and gussied for the aspirational chic of its up-market shopping center environs.
For starters, it's hard to beat the fresh "Urban guacamole" with chips. It's a generous serving of gently mashed avocado chunks with chopped onion and tomatoes, a squeeze of lime and a dash of salt atop shredded iceberg lettuce—nice as an appetizer even without salty tostadas.
As a departure from the usual cheese-gooped tortilla soup, Urban Taco serves a muscular pozole, a red chipotle-brothed Mexican stew thick with hominy and chicken. Of the salads, the best is the "Ensalada Tropical Grande," a shallow toss of thin grapefruit slices, hearts of palm, papaya chunks, cherry tomatoes, pickled red onion, avocado and lettuce. Not much hint of the passion fruit vinaigrette in it, but no harm, no foul there.
Crab-stuffed chile rellenos are a disappointment: small, cold in the middle and woefully bereft of crab. What there is of it you could eat with tweezers.
Soon the assortment of tacos we've ordered starts to crowd the tabletop. Urban Taco serves its soft tacos flat, lined up on long, slim plastic trays grained to look like wood. They're small, party-size finger food, these babies. You choose the filling: Jalisco-influenced beer-and-chile-braised barbacoa, garlicky red snapper, chile-rubbed pork, Puebla-style chicken tinga (shredded chicken cooked with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and chipotle sauce) or grilled poblanos with potato and zucchini. Tacos come a la carte ($2.25 to $3.25 each) or in trios ($9.25, plus another $1 for fish). The latter is accompanied by a pair of side dishes such as slivers of cold mango-jicama slaw, roasted corn in a creamy sauce or grilled onions. The "green rice" bears a strong, soapy twang, perhaps from too much cilantro.
The beef is the weakest link among the taco options. Two meager bites of dark, stringy meat on the round of warm masa taste bland enough to be ordinary pot roast. The all-veggie taco topping, sprinkled with chopped radishes and the mild Mexican cheese called queso fresco, is fine, even if it does require deft handling so the filling doesn't slide off the slippery little tortilla. The red snapper taco trumps both of those with its plump bits of white fish zinging with garlic and green salsa under a squirt of creamy avocado stuff.
The tacos with chile-rubbed pork al pastor spark a discussion. Al pastor—"shepherd's style"—is a Mexican version of Middle Eastern spit-grilled meat. Instead of lamb, as it used to be, al pastor now generally refers to thinly sliced pork marinated in spices and herbs, stacked under pineapple slices on a vertical spit to roast in an inverted triangle shape (narrow part at the bottom). The meat is turned in front of a vertical flame, with cooked slices shaved off as it gets done from the outside in. The thinly carved slices are put into tacos and served with a spicy, smoky chipotle-based sauce.
Hard to find any hint of those nuances in the tiny slivers of pinkish pork hiding under the lettuce and queso fresco in our order. "It's pork that tastes like...pork," says a friend visiting from Denmark, joining us for the second of our two visits to Urban Taco. He claims to be something of an expert on pig-related recipes. "In Denmark we have only two food groups: pork and pork," he says. "Our favorite spice is bacon."
He finds the adobo-spiced chicken torta more exotic. "Adobo" or adobado-style cooking refers to a vinegar-based marinade of tomatoes, garlic, salt, spices and chopped chipotle peppers. The torta, or sandwich, at Urban Taco is a big 'un that comes on a soft-crusted bun piled high with shredded white chicken meat. The flavors of the marinade come through better here, perhaps because there are enough bites of the chicken to get the full benefit of all the ingredients. The bun's good, too, but it's more a bolillo (Mexican French bread) than the telera (flat white bread) listed on the menu.
In everything we try at Urban Taco, flavors are clean, inventive and vivid but not overbearing. The hottest salsa among the six up for grabs is the buttery red roasted peanut-habanero, but even that has subtle warmth with no gasping after-burn. Drizzled for decoration on almost every plate is that smooth avocado-lime crema, which tastes especially good on the twisty tostadas strips that hit their metal bowl still sizzling from the fryer (fresh ones are brought when those cool off). There's also a poblano-and-pine-nut pesto salsa, a charred corn picante and a tomatillo with green pepper, all good and all presented in servings that fall about five scoops short of enough for sharing. (The two salsas we didn't get around to were the "pico de pina" and the black bean pico with roasted corn.)
Dessert choices are few (ahem, there's an ice cream place about two doors down) but three of us easily split one order of the churros—fried sticks of sweet dough dusted with cinnamon—that came dripped with chocolate sauce, sitting next to three spoon-size scoops of dulce de leche ice cream. We'd been nudged to order it before we sat down to eat, so we did. Twenty minutes after our last bite of taco we finally get it.
Hurry up and wait. That's what they still need to work on at Urban Taco, the first restaurant venture by Markus Pineyro, a young SMU grad who has tried to replicate the low-key taco joints and traditional flavors of his native Mexico City. It's a work in progress that shows promise, this place. Just promising enough to warrant dropping back in now and then.
5331 E. Mockingbird Lane, Suite 125, in Mockingbird Station, 214-823-4723. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. $$