Tortilla Flats

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.

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.

There were no complaints about the burritos (two dollars and up), which are served open-face, topped not with lettuce and tomato but with a simple sprinkle of onions and cheese. For the ravenous, there's the "burrito loco": the diner's choice of meat, poultry, or beans, topped with onions, cheese, two sauces, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, and jalape*os. Rice and refried beans accompany this aptly termed "monster," which costs five bucks.

Garnished with cheese, onions, and a creamy "chicken loco" sauce and served with rice and shredded lettuce on the side, chicken and sour cream enchiladas ($4.25) weren't much smaller than the burrito loco. Although wrapped in soft corn tortillas, these delicacies were anything but delicate, and, with every food group in attendance, qualified as a complete meal.

Those who tire of tortillas may want to try the "taco burger": taco fillings on a sesame-seeded hamburger bun. We, however, found the bean burger unbelievably bland. The "apple loco," on the other hand, was a tasty spin on apple pie, made with a fried flour tortilla, melted cheese, and a sprinkle of crushed Red Hots.

We did experience some difficulty in making special requests. It wasn't that the San Loco staff wouldn't fulfill them; they simply didn't seem to understand them, or the motivation behind them. Orders tended to be somewhat off: bits of cheese here and there, as if the ingredient had been added and then scraped off; sauces that had been requested on the side just plain forgotten. Then again, they were always willing to correct mistakes, even on delivery orders.

Six-week-old Tacos by the Road, at 638 S. Miami Ave., is a pleasant lunch alternative for office inmates who are tired of downtown's somewhat stale cuisine scene. Not that the restaurant's three salsas will power things up much -- the most piquant version, a fresh, chunky combination of tomato, white onion, and chopped cilantro, was zippy but nowhere near as hot as the day. Still, this pretty little place presents quick, fine fare in an exceptionally clean setting.

Tacos, burritos, fajitas, and quesadillas, ordered at a counter contrived from hurricane shutters, are assembled from your choice of steak, chicken, pork, or vegetarian (beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, and guacamole). As at the Burrito Place, flour tortillas are the norm here, with corn putting in an appearance only as a basket of chips or nachos. (Unlike at the Burrito Place, these chips were freshly prepared, crisp and barely touched by salt.) Though skimpy on cheese, nachos grandes ($4.79) were liberally laden with peppery beans, newly mixed guacamole that was a bit heavy on the lemon and light on the salt, sour cream, and steak.

Owner Carlos Fournier, a former head line cook at Chi-Chi's, bought out the lease of a pasta restaurant called 638. In opening his taco stand he deliberately kept the menu simple, just the way they do along the byways of Mexico. The name of the restaurant is an apt double-entendre that also plays on the proximity of the locally legendary Tobacco Road. (Old Roadsters may remember an earlier incarnation of the location: Shagnasty's, where Delroy "Cheese" Gibb's chicken and steak fajitas, flamed to order on an outdoor grill on weekend nights, earned two Best of Miami awards.)

Like its venerable neighbor, Tacos by the Road maintains its own individual style. Beans, for instance, are whole red kidneys, not pureed refrieds. Beef is marinated and sliced flank steak, not ground chuck. And the only beer available is Miller Lite on tap, not lime-topped, bottled Corona; twelve-ounce cups of homemade sangria are another choice.

The lone special the day we visited, tequila-and-lime-marinated shrimp ($4.99) served with a corn-tomato salsa in flour taco shells, was an admirable achievement. After soaking in the margarita bath, the shrimp were grilled, then cradled in just-warm tortilla shells. The chunky corn-and-tomato relish added garden punch but unfortunately little in the way of spice.

Sauteed onions and red and green bell peppers contributed to steak fajitas ($4.49), two hot flour tortillas filled with meat, vegetables, and guacamole. A side dish of beans provided extra emphasis, though they couldn't overcome the fact that the steak was overcooked to dryness. As with all other orders, chips were served alongside.

A chicken burrito, priced at $4.29, was warm and fragrant, a well-rolled flour tortilla sandwich suitable to pick up and eat with one's hands. The oven-stiffened shell hid an oozy burst of chicken, guacamole, and salsa -- sans cheese, if you like. Tacos by the Road takes healthy requests with aplomb.

Of course, we're probably all better off if we keep an eye on what we eat. Then again, if we swallowed everything the media fed us, we'd never eat anything at all. And doesn't your own common sense tell you that a certain dish, deep-fried and layered with beef, cheese, guacamole, and sour cream is -- at least in the colloquial sense -- "bad" for you?

At the full-scale eateries such as Mrs. Mendoza's out west and El Rancho Grande on the Beach, the menus have a greater scope, offering something for even the most fastidious dieter. And a drive south to Homestead is sure to yield authentic Mexican results. But for more immediate cravings, check out the taco stands -- they sure beat a Big Mac.

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