The Taco Trail Takes a Trip to Tampa

In Tampa's historic Seminole Heights neighborhood, one of bungalows and art deco buildings and neighbors who know neighbors and care for each other, a white bus has stalled permanently. Owned by Rene Valenzuela, a Mexico native and veteran taquero, the Tampa Taco Bus offers Northern Mexican fare, including tacos, to a motley crew skewing toward the hipster end of the sociodemographic scale.

It's an extremely popular and well-loved local dining spot with ample outdoor beach-bum seating and no-frills cookie-cutter Mexican restaurant interior seating. Most of those waiting in line, whether manual laborer or bearded college student, order the burritos and tostadas and all manner of grub, to go. They do this round the clock. Zealots.

I'm visiting my family for Christmas in Central Florida, and since I'm a fierce detective of tacos wherever I roam, my brother-in-law Michael agreed to take me to the Taco Bus on one condition. We had to follow up the tacos with beers at The Pub, a pour-your-own-beer joint nearby.

After a short wait, I ordered five tacos to be shared -- with two Cocas Mexicana, naturally. Unfortunately, except for the magnificent achiote and bitter orange-seasoned cochinita pibil -- it better be good if the restaurant is advertising it's based on a 5,000-year-old Mayan recipe -- the tacos suffered from poor preparation and excess. The generous fillings poured out onto the Styrofoam plates and our shirts. The barbacoa was the only other offering that came close to matching the wonder that was the pibil. The puerco asado came off as bland pernil. The beer-battered Sonoran-style fish taco was too fishy, which could be confused for freshness, but was just too punchy. The crema liberally applied to the fried chunks and the rich, almost-mole-like chile de árbol salsa served on the side cut through the natural flavor of the taco.

The lengua was a complete stinker. First of all, it wasn't delivered with the rest of our order. Secondly, I had to request the lengua taco twice. Finally, it was inconsistent in texture and flavor. Depending on the size, the bits of tongue were tough, bland and rubbery or smooth, well seasoned and buttery. The neglect shown an excellent cut of meat was a travesty, one that might very well have been an isolated incident. At least that's what I hope. Valenzuela is opening a second location, the new one across the bay in St. Petersburg, where beer and wine will be for sale. Alcohol might mitigate the lapses my brother-in-law and I experienced.