It was love at first taste. The first time I ate the mazateño taco at Tacos Mariachi, I fell in love.
The flour tortilla, from Oak Cliff’s Araiza Tortilla Co., is exquisitely crisp. The shrimp are fabulously sautéed, never overdone, never rubbery. The cabbage is crisp and light, offset by the mouth-embracing heat of the salsa, made with tiny, fiery chiles de árbol. There’s a tasteful crumble of asadero cheese and a brace of sharp pickled onions. This taco is shrimpy, spicy, light, crisp, a miracle of balance. It sings.
Right about the time that the first mazateño taco departed from my plate, I knew Tacos Mariachi was one of my favorite restaurants in Dallas. The love affair has only grown more intense since.
Only a few blocks away on Singleton Boulevard, Trompo is stealing a lot of the attention. That’s the taco shop which was named one of America’s best new restaurants by Bon Appetit magazine, and which has had spiraling lines ever since. Many impatient tacophiles have seen the half-hour wait at Trompo and headed down the street to Tacos Mariachi instead, but this place is too good to be a mere backup plan.
Tacos Mariachi gets its inspiration from Tijuana, where seafood is the order of the day. It also, proudly, gets creative with the fare, dressing the old-fashioned shrimp taco in stylish new clothes. Owner Jesús Carmona has worked for John Tesar, and chef Moises Rico spent years in the kitchen with Dean Fearing. Their combination of regional Mexican inspiration and big-league cooking skills is consistently delicious.
The pulpo, or octopus ($4.75), might be a must-have, although it’s hard to tell, since this place serves about a half-dozen must-have tacos. But tender, peppery octopus, diced finely to avoid chewiness, is as harmonious with avocado and a corn tortilla as fish would be. Octopus also pops up in the campechano ($5.25), a big-time combination taco that also holds shrimp and steak. That sounds like overload, but the result is held together in harmony with a seasoning rub that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mediterranean, fiery pico de gallo and some great grill work.
The “Mayas” taco ($4.75) takes the spices and vivid coloring of cochinita pibil and applies them, brilliantly, to mahi mahi. The tender fish is topped with sweet orange slices and pickled onion. It’s a beautiful, colorful bite, but it also deserves a touch of one of Mariachi’s hot sauces, like the habanero mango salsa.
Another success: the taco featuring, yes, smoked salmon ($4.75). A generous helping of asadero hits the flat-top directly, and once it’s molten into a flat, crisp pocket of cheese, the smoked salmon lands inside, as if the cheese will be the tortilla. Instead, the asadero and salmon get folded together and served on corn. Smoked salmon in a taco might seem counterintuitive, and it tastes unorthodox, but this is another case of Mariachi’s creativity paying dividends.
Not everything is seafood at Tacos Mariachi. There’s a classic called the norteño ($4.25) with choice of meat, at its earthy best with beef. Thick bites of steak, refried beans, pico and avocado come together beautifully inside a flour tortilla that’s been grilled 'til just turning brown. This might be the restaurant’s heartiest, most filling taco.
There are, currently, two nightly specials, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tuesdays mean the “Crisco Kid,” a taco with the fish fillet battered in crumbled-up chicharrones. There’s serious crunch to that one. On Thursdays, Tacos Mariachi honors author (and occasional Observer contributor) José R. Ralat with the “Ralat Chile Relleno” ($5.25). I haven’t managed to snag this one, yet; on my Thursday visit, they’d already run out.
Not everything works quite so well for me. The Azteca ($3.75), a vegetarian combo of mushrooms, epazote and huitlacoche, is very earthy indeed, and begs for a big squirt of salsa. It does represent a welcome refuge for diners who can’t handle hot peppers. Besides the divine mazateño ($4.25), the other shrimp taco bears a less appealing cilantro pesto ($4.25). The shrimp is well-cooked again, and the accompanying veggies are well-chosen, but the pesto leaves a huge oil slick across the tortilla and indeed the whole basket.
Accompaniments can be fun. Mariachi’s guacamole ($4.50) is on the simple, light side, fresh and without frills. The poblano chile con queso is pretty addictive ($3.50). The restaurant’s mole fries ($3.75) are a fun side, the kind of thing that would be a smash success out of a food truck or a late-night drunk-food spot. Tacos Mariachi doesn’t need to serve these — nothing else on the menu contains either mole or fries — but I found myself snacking on them long after my stomach claimed to be full.
With a sizable patio and a fridge of Mexican beers, Tacos Mariachi has the amenities to complement its satisfying cooking. A cheery sign over the counter tells us, in Spanish, “You Can Even Drink the Water.” Jesús Carmona is a charming host, bringing food out to most tables and explaining his menu with enthusiasm.
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Tijuana-style cuisine was missing from Dallas’ thriving taco landscape, and this restaurant serves as a terrific ambassador. The world beyond carnitas is an exciting one — although they sell carnitas, too. Tacos Mariachi is as valuable for the diversity it brings to Dallas as it is for the deliciousness.
Which is to say, it’s a priceless addition to the city’s dining scene. And as for my love affair with that beautiful mazateño, we have another date this weekend. It can’t come soon enough.
Tacos Mariachi, 602 Singleton Blvd., 214-741-1239, open 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.