At this point in the taco trend's life cycle, terms such as "masa" and "nixtamalization" are commonplace. Both seem to be critical elements for any restaurant or taqueria that wants to get into the game. Those elements are front and center at Wapo Taco (2526 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 786-452-9634), which opened midsummer. Wapo is the second outpost of a burgeoning taco chain whose roots can be traced to Mexico City's El Farolito, which boasts nearly two dozen locations.
Wapo is a separate entity founded by Luis Musi, the 30-year-old grandson of El Farolito's founder. "We wanted to bring authentic Mexican food, legit Mexican food, to the U.S.," he says. "What you get here in Florida isn't Mexican food."
Culinary operations for the Coral Gables and older Hallandale location are helmed by David Muñoz, who used to work at Brickell's high-end Mexican spot Cantina La Veinte. Under his eye, Wapo offers an impressive array of tacos, alongside other specialties such as the Costra ($13.99). It's a grilled skirt steak entombed in cheese that's griddled until it begins to melt and develop a crust. There is also the seemingly out-of-place, Mediterranean-sounding Wapa ($12.99), a pita stuffed with steak and melted manchego cheese accompanied by a ramekin of guacamole.
As the kitchen begins to fire out tacos, it becomes clear that Musi's promises, which conjure images of humble Mexican street tacos filled with intensely seasoned meat, don't match reality and that he's in need of an eating trip to Homestead.
They're flavorful, filling tacos, but they also seize on the American love for oversize portions and fatty, rich condiments. Take the humble carnitas taco ($7.99 for two), which blends robust shoulder and belly meat. The moment before it's served, a cook pulverizes a heap of crisp skin into the porcine equivalent of a pile of snow. He then scatters it atop the meat like fresh powder. Of course, it's hard to refuse, but is it necessary? It overshadows the meat and is a touch gimmicky.
La Bomba ($8.99) tacos also assault the senses with a mound of melted manchego and squiggle of sour cream blanketing piney grilled cactus and spicy chorizo.
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Musi admits that though he aspires to replicate Mexico's flavors, as so many places around town also try to do, he isn't shy about changing recipes to please customers.
"We want to bring legitimate food but know we can't do it overnight," he says. "People are asking for less of sour cream and things like that than before; they're learning more about the experience."
Compared to the wholesale bastardization of Mexican food that's become an American tradition, Wapo is a vast improvement. The half-dozen salsas that are laid out in front of every guest are also some of the finest around. Wapo might be the missing link that one day leads to the death of demands for sour cream and nacho cheese. Let's hope Wapo lightens things up a bit and lets the flavorful meats and tender tortillas speak for themselves.