Fast, Cheap, and Out of This World

These days it seems as though nearly every woman I know under the age of 40 is pregnant or just had a baby. I've even been asked to be a godmother for the first time. So far, however, I have resisted the urge to have a child of my own. I figure if I end up with a daughter who is half as much trouble as I was, I'll be getting a lifetime of punishment. Frankly I'm not ready for payback just yet. And as my husband of nearly three years is fond of explaining, "We haven't graduated from cats yet."

The truth is we've been enjoying our before-the-kids years by hanging out with other people's children, including a pair of surrogate siblings we met through Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Miami. Becoming a big sister was not so simple. According to the agency, there is a dire shortage of men willing to spend their weekends with underprivileged boys, but there is a surplus of such volunteer-minded women. So while boys often grow facial hair before finding a man willing to commit to becoming a role model, matchable little girls can choose from a long waiting list.

So almost immediately after passing a rigorous screening process, my husband (at the time my fiance) was introduced to a boy who had waited nearly five years for a big brother. Meanwhile, with a tinge of envy, I stood on the sidelines as they went off to race go-carts and watch basketball games. I waited so long, in fact, that by the time I was fixed up with a girl I could have had a child of my own.

But finally I was matched up with a nine-year-old who, I was told, loved cats and baking. Within weeks we were exchanging kitty stories and cookie recipes. When we met in the middle of summer more than two years ago, we spent our first messy days in my parents' kitchen making mango pies. While she was quick to learn the tricks of preparing perfect pastry, I soon discovered that agreeing on what to cook for lunch would be more difficult. "Yuck!" is her response to most suggestions. No fish, no tomatoes, no mushrooms, no pork, no onions, no beans, no salad or greens of any kind. This child wanted nothing more exotic than pizza or French fries.

Pasta with marinara sauce is an easy solution when we have the time to cook at home or to go out for a leisurely meal. But while on the run, fast food must suffice. As a self-confessed food snob, however, I find it tough enough to find healthful and tasty fast food for myself, let alone stuff I'd feel okay about pushing on a soon-to-be teenager.

So on a recent Saturday afternoon, while the two of us were en route to the beach to celebrate my "sister's" twelfth birthday, we found ourselves starving in newly spruced-up North Beach, where dozens of fast-food restaurants -- from Miami Subs to McDonald's to a pizza parlor -- compete for attention. Interspersed are a few mom-and-pop Italian and Cuban joints and a place called Athen's Juice Bar. Hmmm? Health food? We had gone that route before, and I learned that under no uncertain terms is frozen yogurt a substitute for Haagen-Dazs.

Though we were eager to eat and get to the ocean, I wouldn't give in to the lure of the Beanie Babies displayed beneath the golden arches. Not far from McD's, I spied a storefront festooned with pinatas and Budweiser flags that I'd never noticed before. Through the window I could see packets of dried chilies and bottled sauces, with snacks and candies hanging on the wall behind an old-fashioned cash register. A simple menu taped to the window offered more than a dozen varieties of tacos and burritos, as well as a few sandwiches and Mexican regional specialties, with everything priced less than $9.00. Above the doors in neon was the name of the place: Taquerias El Mexicano.

"You know, tacos. Like at Taco Bell? Only better," I told my little sister, hoping I was right.

We entered and slid into one of the restaurant's five vinyl booths, one away from the only other customers in the place, three grinning Mexican guys who laughed with the waitress as if they were regulars. Clearly this no-frills taqueria is not a chichi tourist trap. The tables are adorned with green-and-white checked plastic table cloths and vases of fake flowers. Scratchy salsa music plays from a hidden sound system somewhere in the back. A badly translated menu is way too cheap and authentic to draw out-of-towners looking for frozen margaritas.

Optimistic, we contemplated our lunch choices, listed on a plastic board that hung over the restaurant's grill (the selections were a rough approximation of those on the paper menu). A pleasant young waitress came to take our order. Although not exactly fluent, she spoke English and pointed well enough to explain that our drink options consisted of soft drinks, beer, and bottled sangria, as well as several Mexican refrescos. It was up to me to figure out the nature of those drinks: horchata, a sweet, syrupy drink, is made from rice and milk; Jamaica, sweetened sorrel juice; and tamarindo, a tea-color drink of tamarind juice and sugar. I tried the ruby-red Jamaica and found it to be slightly sweet and deliciously refreshing. My little sister, of course, had a Coke.

"Un burrito de pollo, por favor, para mi." I explained to my hermanita that I had ordered a chicken burrito.

"Sounds good," she shrugged, "I'll have the same." Needless to say, the tripe or brain tacos were not enticing.

We asked for an order of guacamole with chips to tide us over while our burritos were prepared. A chintzy portion of chips arrived first, followed by a generous mound of guac served in a crisply fried tortilla bowl. The avocado was cubed, not mashed, and studded with slivers of tomato. Sweet onion, coriander, lime juice, and a dash of garlic completed the savory blend of creamy but not overly heavy dip. The hand-cut chips were crisp and dark without a trace of grease. Within minutes we had devoured them and asked for more. Our waitress immediately brought out another fresh, warm batch.

We resumed munching, but something was missing. Salsa! Our waitress was happy to bring a bowl of the smooth, rich sauce as soon as we asked. Not overwhelmed by tomato flavor, the blood-red concoction instead had a complex and smoky, though not incendiary, flavor, but my companion still found it way too spicy. The accommodating waitress brought another bowl of identical-looking salsa, this one packing a bit less kick, but it still didn't suit the younger set of taste buds at the table.

The oversize burritos, on the other hand, that arrived within a few minutes won big points. "Mmm. Yeah, it's pretty good," my little sister murmured. Folded into the warm flour tortilla envelope were tender strips of grilled chicken, rice, pasty refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and a dose of sour cream. The mix was seasoned with a hint of chilies, garlic, onion, and cilantro.

On a return visit on a Friday night without my food-critic-in-training, I was surprised to find the place crowded with more than a dozen young Mexicans. My friends and I could hardly hear each other for the sound of a screaming infant seated inches from my ear. (I'm definitely waiting for a new-millennium baby.) Talk about a family restaurant. Once the crying subsided, we discussed the menu.

Being the only native English speakers in the place, we couldn't resist ordering the quesadilla gringa. Frankly, I was expecting an overdone, cheesy, cartoon version of Mexican food. But like most of the other dishes here, it was tasty and subtly flavored, and without all the garish cheeses and sauces so common at Tex-Mex joints. Two flour tortillas sandwich chunks of moist beef and spunky chorizo, which are spackled with white cheese. The salty, slightly aged meat flavor was tamed by the mild cheese and a rich garnish of guacamole. All in all, a surprisingly nongreasy creation.

Also good was a vegetarian burrito: a packet of refried beans and an assortment of grilled vegetables, including onions, red and green peppers, and mushrooms, topped with crisp tomatoes and lettuce. Despite the slightly rubbery mushroom slices that must have been cooked well in advance, this hearty dish is worth a try.

The tacos, on the other hand, were not so great. There are nine types from which to choose, including roast or spicy pork, ground or stewed beef, and the aforementioned tripe and brain. An order of three (you can mix and match) comes in a plastic basket, with a dollop of rice and beans and a few shreds of salad on the side. The CD-size soft corn tacos, each topped with lettuce and tomato, are hardly large enough to contain the mound of stuff inside. The chicken filling was uninspired and dry, but the slices of beef were fantastic -- slightly charred on the edges, juicy and meaty in the center.

As was the case with the soggy mushrooms in the veggie burrito, some of the ingredients served here seemed to have been prepared too far in advance to be utterly fresh. One of the menu choices, the tamales, suffered in part from just such a problem: a chalky and dense corn-meal casing. And yet the filling of succulent pork remained juicy and tender and tasted especially good smothered in a mild red salsa. We asked for a sample of the salsa verde and found it lighter, tangier, and a bit more pungent. We were told these corn cylinders are put together at one of Taquerias El Mexicano's two other locations, both on Eighth Street, then warmed up at the Beach location. It shows.

Grilled entrees are particularly well executed. My choice for the best dish overall is the carnitas platter. Succulent cubes of roasted, then grilled, pork were served with rice, beans, and salad, resulting in a filling and decadent dinner without cheese or sauce of any kind.

After indulging in such a substantial meal, we ordered dessert more out of habit than hunger. Unfortunately, the most appealing option, the burrito de manzana, wasn't available that night. Instead we shared a flan. The prepackaged individual cup of pudding looked as though it had come from a supermarket case. Dense and sweet and riddled with air pockets, the firm caramel custard tasted store-bought, too. Given the fact that the restaurant doesn't serve coffee, you'll probably want to have dessert elsewhere.

There are a number of other eateries within walking distance of Taquerias El Mexicano, and even more just a short drive away near the Normandy fountain. On our next beach outing, I plan to take my husband along. I hope his little brother can come too; lately he has been busy studying road signs so he can get his learner's permit. Too bad Taquerias El Mexicano doesn't have a drive-thru.

Taquerias El Mexicano
6974 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-864-5220. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. till 10:00 p.m (may close earlier on weekdays, so call first).

Guacamole with chips
Chicken burrito
Roast pork platter
Quesadilla gringa
Flan Napolitano


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