"Salsa has now passed ketchup as America's favorite condiment," Jay Leno announced in a 2006 monologue. "You know it's bad when even our vegetables are starting to lose their jobs to Mexico." In all seriousness, the news that our country's iconic ketchup had been knocked off its perch served notice: Hispanic culture had become part of mainstream America.
That was five years ago, and what was true then is even truer today. So I say it's high time we replace the sappy soup-and-sandwich as our national symbol of a wholesome, balanced meal with tequila-and-taco. We already have the infrastructure for such a move via a superfluity of Mexican restaurants. El Vato Tequila & Taco Bar is the latest to throw its sombrero into the ring.
Vato sits just two blocks from Rosa Mexicano in Mary Brickell Village, but it is more of a bar/lounge than dining establishment; it's not glitzy enough to be in Rosa's competitive bracket. The decorative theme is that of Tijuana dive re-imagined as a backdrop for a music video. On the left side of the room is an antiqued brass-topped bar backed by a graffiti-scrawled wall and shelves of red glass candles. The same scuffed bronze forms the tops of tables that are scattered across a polished concrete floor. Brick walls interrupted by corrugated tin panels add to the urban-alleyway feel, as does a red '64 Buick — beneath a giant pre-LCD television screen — at the back of the room.
If less is more, El Vato's menu is almost too much to handle. The "primero" offerings are two soups (tortilla and black bean), grilled cheese "chicharrón," chipotle cheese dip, and nachos. Tacos, flautas, quesadillas, enchiladas, fajitas, and burritos compose the "segundo" section. I'll bet Gabriel Iglesias keeps a wider selection of snacks in his refrigerator. Seriously, though, this is an apt number of items for a taqueria such as Vato.
Diners begin with a basket of thin, crisp tortilla chips and three dips with more bite than bark: tomatillo, red chili, and chipotle aioli. For those who prefer a nonpiquant spread, guacamole is proffered as one of three à la carte "acompañamientos" (along with rice and black beans). It consists of one or two ripe avocados ($5 or $9), mashed to order, with tomatoes, onion, and lime juice.
Great start, and one that pairs well with a half-dozen Mexican beers ($6); a middling sangria ($8); about 60 premium tequilas in blanco, reposado, and añejo formats; nine high-end premium tequilas; three flavored tequilas; five tequila cocktails ($13); an "ultimate" margarita ($15); and four blue agave margaritas ($10), including a potent, well-balanced "classic" made with Cazadores Reposado.
Next it's time for tacos — small, soft tortillas (a choice of flour or corn) folded around tasty cubes of grilled steak, dry cubes of grilled chicken, meaty chunks of mahi-mahi, or moist morsels of pulled pork (carnitas). Diced onion, chopped cilantro, and lime wedges are served alongside, which is the way it ought to be.
El Vato also does the right thing concerning sourcing. Chickens and Angus cattle are certified humane (no antibiotics or growth hormones used when raising them). Vato considerately caters to vegans too by keeping Daiya vegan cheese and Smart Ground veggie protein on hand to use as substitutions upon request.
We decided against investing in the primero options and instead asked for tacos and flautas first. This planning proved to be in vain; though those two snacks preceded the rest of our order, everything else was crammed onto the table minutes later. Our server appeared to have the same level of food service training as a cocktail waitress, and other waiters around the room didn't seem any smoother. Guess the idea is that after a few shots of tequila, diners won't really give a damn if the fajitas arrive late — even if they were supposed to be burritos. On the plus side, it's a friendly crew.
Flautas came as two crisply fried flour tortillas the size of small egg rolls. With warm, melted cheese-and-chicken interiors, they were tasty in a Totino's Pizza Rolls way, but were vastly improved with a dip into the side dish of homemade sweet-and-spicy jalapeño jelly.
Our burrito needed jazzing with that jelly more than the flautas did. It gets freshly rolled with rice, black beans, cheese, onions, peppers, and steak, chicken, or pork carnitas. But even with sour cream and fresh pico de gallo to perk it up, ours resembled a soulless fast-food version.
Fajita meats were not served on a sizzle platter and predictably exhibited no sizzle. Still, the grilled slices of steak and pork were tasty in tandem with sautéed onions and peppers. A separate platter presented five corn tortillas, sour cream, and — in our case — cold Mexican rice and black beans.
The biggest miss was easily a pair of enchiladas so flimsily filled with cheese that the main flavor was corn tortilla and red sauce spiked with chili powder. The good news: They're only $5. Excepting fajitas ($11, or $12 with mahi), every food item on the menu is $9 or less. Portions are proportionately small. Tacos are $2.50 apiece — or to put it another way, $1.25 per mouthful. The nachos and burrito represent the most bulk for the buck.
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Three fresh and crunchy churros were served in a glass with dipping caramel sauce on the bottom and whipped cream on the side — a flawless rendering ($4). The same can't be said for a fried dessert "burrito" filled with apples and sweetly glazed with jam-like strawberry sauce ($6). There's a reason you don't often see people eat these two fruits together: They're just not one of those natural pairings. In other words, apple-and-strawberry is no tequila-and-taco.