Huahua's Taqueria: Quirky Late-Night Eats in South Beach

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The pretty cashier at Huahua's Taqueria wears a sombrero. It's bulky, with a wide brim and fuschia splotches that match the chalkboard menu hanging above her head. Some nights, she opts for plastic Wayfarers instead. Stamped with the restaurant's name, the specs have clear lenses, thick rims, and cobalt temples.

But are those just for show?

"I've got my contacts on underneath," she says with a toothy grin one late Friday evening. "These are for fun."

For months, South Beach has anticipated Todd Erickson's latest restaurant -- a fast-casual taco joint that doesn't take itself too seriously. The boyish chef also runs the gastropub Haven, a futuristic lounge serving liquid nitrogen cocktails alongside sashimi, crudos, and sliders. Since December, Erickson has teased locals by previewing Huahua's (pronounced like the huahua in Chihuahua) signature tacos at his flagship spot.

In June, the chef stocked a narrow building on Lincoln Road with plenty of Mexican beers and Jarritos. On the sidewalk, he placed water bowls for dogs and unfurled blue umbrellas above silver tables and chairs. Located just a few doors down from his pub, Huahua's features loaded nachos, a slushy machine that chills frozen margaritas, and a Chihuahua named Jalapeña as its mascot.

The taqueria doesn't pretend to follow any pat cultural recipes. The menu lists enchiladas and tacos al pastor next to queso blanco mac 'n' cheese, a dish spiked with roasted green chilies and fried tortillas. Huahua's isn't exactly a Mexican restaurant -- nor is it Tex-Mex or even fusion. It's the kind of place you usually visit after midnight, on evenings when you've perhaps had too much to drink and when nothing but a deep-fried avocado taco will do.

Although Huahua's has some eccentricities, its format follows the juggernaut of locally based fast-casual restaurants. Erickson's order-at-the-counter venture resembles Lime Fresh Mexican Grill -- an enterprise recently sold by local businessman John Kunkel to Ruby Tuesday -- and My Ceviche, a string of seafood spots helmed by acclaimed chef Sam Gorenstein. Like those before him, Erickson is dreaming big. On its website, the franchise-friendly restaurant lists information for investor opportunities. This tiny taqueria aspires to be the first of many.

Offbeat eats set Huahua's apart from similar places. Tacos here are mischievous little things, branded with neat grill marks and crammed with unusual fillings such as fried chicken and jalapeño-flecked cornbread. The flour-dredged chicken is perfectly cooked, doodled with an ancho-infused ranch sauce that tastes somewhere between gringo sports bar and taqueria. Another quirky dish, the breakfast taco, cradles pork chili, carnitas, hash browns, and eggs over a flour tortilla. Cocooned by bubbly cheese, the tubby taco lacks sufficient spice or acid to cut through all the fat. Still, certain occasions call for indulgences like a nightcap on a hot evening, cooled down with Huahua's fruity paletas and one or two violet-tinged blackberry margaritas.

Sure, there are gentler tacos here. Often, they're dryer than they should be: A scorched strip of mahi-mahi didn't get any better with its astringent chili-lime vinaigrette. The white flesh spent too long on the grill, as did the pollo al pastor. Nestled beneath charred chunks of pineapple and lime crema, the bird was slightly tough.

Huahua's vegetarian tacos are real winners. Spicy tofu crema silkens a patch of smoke-touched mushrooms. The sauce also graces the guaco taco, a study on the Hass avocado, both mashed and fried. A dip in the deep-fryer yields avocados with a pudding-like consistency, sheathed by a crisp crust. The emerald hunks are stacked atop guacamole and grilled vegetables. It's an enjoyable dish.

The taqueria's best creation is more straightforward. To prepare elotes, sweet corncobs are grilled, skewered, and coated in Tajín spices, Cotija cheese, and cilantro. It's nice to see so many men in pastel Penguin polos eating uninhibitedly in South Beach -- their mouths dusted with the corn's scarlet powder. And even though these elotes are a messy affair, they're perfectly suited for staying up late and eating spicy foods on one of Miami's most famous streets.

Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.

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