Cut a Texan open and she’ll bleed queso. The yellow kind, made possible by the industrial revolution and modern science — the darling of Tex-Mex. Texans love everything about this bastard of a cuisine: the cheese, the rice, the sopapillas drenched in honey, the sizzling sound of fajitas against cast iron.
Conversely, there are those who view Tex-Mex as a sour cream-covered blight on Mexican cuisine. These people should be pitied from afar, as they have clearly never known the unbridled joy that a good sour cream chicken enchilada can deliver. And while we all have our favorite spots to fix our Tex-Mex jones, it never hurts to find one more, right?
Taco Joint does Tex-Mex fast-casual style, with three locations in Dallas and one in Richardson. Between the brightly colored walls and the glitter-vinyl covered bar stools, it looks like the kind of place parents would take their child on his birthday, put a sombrero on his head and relish the look of resentment on his face as workers sing “Happy Birthday” to the tune of “La Cucaracha.”
Much as the interior looks like a Tex-Mex restaurant shouldn’t, the menu reads like a Tex-Mex one should. Or at least for the most part. In keeping with Taco Joint’s fast-casual approach, you won’t find chile rellenos, fajita platters or other semi-labor intensive dishes. But there are still tacos, nachos, enchiladas, burritos and the like, in addition to a rotating special on weeknights.
Taco Joint also serves breakfast, enabling diners to show their peritoneums who’s the boss before 7 a.m. The menu includes a choice of breakfast tacos (egg, potato, chorizo, sausage, etc.), each of which will set you back $2.50 for two fillings. They’re fine, if unremarkable — the Iowa of breakfast tacos.
There are also breakfast burritos, as well as breakfast specialties like migas, “Early Bird” enchiladas and Taco Joe’s chilaquiles. The migas and chilaquiles were more of the same: sturdy scrambled eggs that would fare well in the hard winters of the Midwest and some perfunctory Mexican seasoning, served alongside refried beans and soft-fried potatoes. The beans are reminiscent of the stuff shot from food guns at your favorite fast food joint, which is to say, they’re tasty enough.
But what of the tacos? The restaurant is called Taco Joint, after all. Served in flour tortillas (corn or hard shell upon request) and garnished with cheese, lettuce and tomato, the tacos here are straight-forward Tex-Mex. A few options claim to be street style, but corn tortillas conceal fillings that are about as street as Brian Williams. Not that they’re bad. The “street” tacos are some of the better options: the pico-topped spicy pork features super tender, shredded pork, and the brisket, while slightly dry, had a nice, beefy flavor.
Chicken tacos come one of two ways: fried or fajita-style. While the former takes three chicken strips and fries them until perfectly crisp, the latter takes industrial chicken and gives it the appearance of having been grilled. A better take on fajitas is the steak version, with strips of acid-kissed sirloin served atop a bed of grilled onions.
Rounding off our Trail of Tacos was the fish taco, consisting of a piece of grilled cod approximately the size of an infant’s forearm, topped with romaine lettuce, purple cabbage and shredded carrots. The cod was surprisingly fresh-tasting and made for a nice interlude between the cheese and pork-based onslaught. A blasé vegetarian taco isn’t worth ordering unless your diet demands otherwise, although it’s still better than the chuck-bbq pork, which was so sweet and so slicked with grease that one bite was more than enough.
Of course, if you give a Texan a taco, he’ll want some salsa to go with it. Salsa is another one of those divisive food preferences: Some like it hot, some like it not. At TJ’s, the red salsa billed as an appetizer is on the sweet side and disconcertingly smooth, though it benefits from a nice kick of heat. Save yourself the expense and stock up at the self-serve salsa bar, which features a more acidic red, a mild green and a jalapeño ranch that is delicious in the way that only ranch can be. (Pro tip: Get the chicken taco and pile that sucker high with jalapeño ranch before going home, sitting in an empty bathtub and crying.)
An order of “The Disaster” queso turned out to be much less dramatic than the name would imply. It was just regular, yellow queso with ground meat, chiles and avocado in it. Perhaps the name was chosen not because it tastes like a disaster, but because those who consume it become disasters themselves as they dig furiously through the cheese for its treasures.
The guacamole is made from actual avocados that grow on actual trees, which is nice, but would benefit from some salt and acid. That seemed to be the pattern at Taco Joint — the dishes were fine, some even tasty, but most things need a little oomph to take them out of Tex-Mex doldrums and into the Tex-Mex fantasy land where clouds are made of sour cream and the margarita waterfall never runs dry.
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One item that did stand out in true Gomer Pyle “surprise, surprise” fashion was the tortilla soup, chock-full of chicken, squash, potato, avocado and tortilla chips. The chips had disintegrated in the light tomato broth, turning it reach and creamy.
Items that fared less well included a ground beef burrito that would give Taco Bell a run for its money, and enchiladas, which we tried three ways: for breakfast, for dinner and for sheer curiosity. The “Early Bird” enchiladas — scrambled eggs, pulled pork and bacon, wrapped in flour tortillas and smothered in queso — are not the breakfast to have before a session of hot yoga. Perhaps the only occasion when the Bird would be apt is when one is waging a war against one’s pants button.
Dinner enchiladas marry the usual suspects — cheese, ground beef, chicken or veg — with the usual saucepects: chile con carne, tomatillo, ranchero or queso. Various combinations therein ran the spectrum of uninspiring, getting little flavor-boost from their presumed caloric content. The enchiladas eaten out of sheer curiosity were the Thursday night special, “avocado queso porkiladas.” Here’s the recipe: Put shredded pork and cheese in flour tortilla. Roll. Cover in sour cream sauce that tastes vaguely of mayonnaise. Eat. Pray. Love.
Taco Joint is not the stuff of Tex-Mex dreams. Though its beans may be refried and its use of the word “smothered” on par with industry standard, it falls short of Tex-Mex gold. But melted cheese-stuffs cover a multitude of sins; in Taco Joint’s case, just enough to get an honorable mention. (The award will also be covered in cheese.)