The deserted parking lot should have been a red flag.
Our trip to Mari's Taqueria started out with a promising tip, and somewhere between taking the flyer from the taco-loving lady at the gas station and walking into the restaurant that day, we'd worked ourselves up into a lather, wondering if we hadn't stumbled upon one of those really great places that you have to know someone who knows someone to know about. You know?
Mari's colorful advertisement teased with a glistening image of a giant slab of pork roasting al trompo for tacos al pastor. A long list of entrees and the offer of free coffee with every order also whet our appetite.
Turns out, we'd have been better off eating the flyer.
The two month old taqueria sits on one end of a ghost town shopping strip near the intersection of Beacon and East Grand. Inside, the place was broiling--the a/c was either off or on the fritz. Behind the front counter we spied a couple of deserted work stations, a cold grill and some food service vats...no pork on a spit in sight. And no customers.
We might have also noticed the absence of inviting aromas, but a smiling older gent appeared before that additional clue had a chance to register.
After greetings were exchanged, we proceeded to struggle with our order. Seems the tacos al pastor wouldn't be available until three o'clock. Okay. After running down a couple of other impossibilities (gleaned from the hand-written menu on the wall), we settled on two barbacoa tacos, two chicken fajita tacos, a potato taco and a cup of elotes. We settled at the one lone table to wait.
Our meal emerged bit by bit over the course of the next fifteen sweaty minutes. First came one potato taco and one chicken taco. No sign of the second chicken taco, but we chalked it up to a language barrier (even though we ordered in Spanish, or so we assumed). Naked and monochromatic, the tacos were served sans garnishes--and sans seasoning of any sort, it seemed. A few bites in, the man called to us and asked if we'd like salsa. We jumped at the chance for some additional flavor (and moisture), but his squeeze bottle of salsa verde added nothing but one-note heat.
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Both main ingredients, it also bears mentioning, had been pulled from freezer bags and reheated on the grill. We pushed round one aside to await the barbacoa.
Slowly but surely, two more tiny tacos arrived. This time, the double corn tortillas held shredded beef, but as with their predecessors, they too arrived with nothing in the way of accompaniments--no cilantro, no onion, no lime. The man, however, perhaps sensing our growing disappointment, finally passed us a paper tray with some garnishes. The barbacoa meat itself was tender and rich with fat, but again, it lacked any seasoning.
Elotes were the final straw. The cup held brackish canned corn (so that's where all the salt went) and musty queso fresco, all with an underlying funk that even a generous squirt of brick-red chili sauce couldn't cover.
After paying our $9.50 (food plus two sodas), we made a bee line for the nearest drive-thru. While munching our second cheap, low-quality lunch, we mused on the words of a wise Santa: "They can't all be winners, kid."