By Emily Codik
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After a disquieting clip in the Herald and a few subsequent days of radio and TV news factoids about the health horrors associated with Mexican-American food, I was hard put to find willing dining companions for a taco stand roundup. Friends who don't bat an eye at a Big Mac shook their heads at the mere suggestion of a plate of nachos. "The cholesterol!" shrieked one after another. "Fried, greasy food! Dairy! And red meat! Don't you listen to the radio?"
To make matters worse, the media administered this particular kick of wellness hysteria just when Miami was beginning to get interesting, Mexican foodwise. While this still ain't no Ensenada by any means, taco stands are establishing themselves in South Florida -- and not just in out-of-the-way Homestead. (By "taco stand" I mean any Mexican eatery that satisfies the following criteria: pay-at-the-counter service; paper plates and menus; plastic dinnerware; speedy cookery; and prices a cheapskate would cherish -- no item costing more than seven dollars.) All three places reviewed here opened within the year, two of them within the past three months.
At 2120 NE 123rd St. in North Miami, The Burrito Place is a three-month-old, pink-awninged shop in the San Souci strip mall. Several tables and a counter inside account for about two dozen seats; two tables outside provide a little extra room. A tiled sales counter painted with a Tex-Mex motif, a display case filled with Spanish onions and other produce, and a menu board are all pleasant reminders of the specialty of the house -- the burrito.
314 72nd St.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
To be more specific, the immense burrito, with a selection of fillings that range from shredded beef to grilled shrimp to chicken cutlet to marinated skirt steak to no-meat combos. From among the all-vegetable offerings, I sampled the stir-fry leaf spinach and mushroom, a delicious, garlicky mixture rolled in a supple flour tortilla with white rice, black beans, salsa, and guacamole. Though the liberal amounts of oil employed in the stir-fry quickly dispelled any delusions of "healthy" eating, at $5.25 this jumbo burrito, with nonfat plain yogurt or sour cream served on the side and a dash or two of Tabasco's new jalape*o sauce to spice things up, is a great value.
Heaped with chunks of marinated chicken and double handfuls of Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses, and served on a metal pizza tray, the same tortilla became a quesadilla (six dollars) too enormous to finish. This Mexican version of the grilled-cheese sandwich was topped with chunky red salsa and a dollop each of sour cream and a particularly good guacamole spiked with diced red onions, which tended to make matters a bit soggy as the concoction cooled.
A pepito -- a sandwich of grilled meat served on a toasted hoagie roll -- stood up better. We ordered the roast pork pepito, the sliced meat smothered in sauteed onions and peppers and garnished with slices of creamy avocado, a very satisfying five-dollar sandwich, particularly when washed down with a bottle of Mexican beer self-served from the refrigerated case at the back of the cafe.
Don't visit the Burrito Place expecting tacos, or, for that matter, anything made with corn tortillas. Even the chicken caesar salad ($5.50) is served in a tostada shell formed from a flour tortilla. This mountain of crisp romaine, sliced black olives, onions, and tomatoes was a flavorful -- and healthy -- choice, especially when salsa was substituted for the commercial-tasting, cheesy dressing that comes alongside.
A glimpse of the staff and clientele of San Loco, located on Fourteenth Street between Washington and Collins avenues on South Beach, might inspire trepidation, particularly late at night. Whatever body parts aren't covered by clothing tend to be adorned with art, probably administered at Tattoos by Lou, two doors down the block. But the down-home cooking, all done on the premises, with lard-free vegetarian options abounding, is far from intimidating.
In fact San Loco comes as close to comfort food as any place on South Beach, beginning with the rich, spicy sopa de pollo ($1.75). Stocked with chunks of chicken, sliced green pepper and onions, a handful of crushed jalapenos, and a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice, this piquant starter was an excellent way to prepare the palate for San Loco's special sauces -- "mild," "hot," and the dangerously green "serious."
"Chili loco" ($1.75 for a small order, $2.50 for a large one) was another explosive pleasure, the heat unerringly finding its way to the sensitive back-of-the-throat area. (Beers at San Loco, incidentally, run the Cal-Mex gamut from Corona Light to Pacifico.) Lean ground beef, tomato, and red kidney beans swirled in a savory brown gravy seasoned with seven spices and chopped hot peppers. Side orders of fried-on-the-spot corn chips and an excellent guacamole, heavy on the seeded tomatoes, cooled this dish down a notch.
The real go-sees here, though, are the tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, all of which are variations on a theme -- refried beans, ground beef, juicy chicken, or Mexican tomato-flavored rice (or a combination thereof) stuffed into flour or corn tortillas with cheese, sauce, and salad ingredients.
The traditional taco ($1.50), with its fried corn shell, held up admirably against the wet ingredients and ranked as the favorite, although the "taco/guaco loco," a crisp corn taco wrapped in a soft flour tortilla spread with refried beans or guacamole ($2.50 and up), finished a close second. I'm also a fan of San Loco's soft flour tacos (two dollars each), though they tend to be messier -- i.e., more liable to fall apart. Should you order these, by all means request the plastic utensils.