Chew On This: Taco-Belly

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all food is created equal.

New Paltz is a great town if you’re a foodie. There’s Thai, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Indian and the ubiquitous Italian Pizzeria. The problem with many of these restaurants is the price and minor inconvenience of a shirt and shoes policy. If I’m paying top dollar for my Bip Bim Bap, by the way, I expect some flexibility in your dress code. That’s where the taqueria comes in. The perfect combination of ethnic fare mixed with affordability and convenience, the taco is the next thing I reach for when I want hand held food but pizza’s become overplayed.

The town has several places to grab a taco, but  two that have made a living off them; Mexicali Blue, and Taco Shack. The names alone paint a picture in your mind.  One sounds like it was going for an authentic, chic appeal. The other name sounds like it wanted you to know that these tacos were safe from rain (but possibly not bears, shacks aren’t known for their sturdiness). But names aside, these are great places for different reasons.

The décors in both restaurants have always appealed to me; Mexicali for its lack of space and utter warmth (you can also eat outside and gawk at tourists), or the Shack, a trippy little cantina attached to a beverage distributor. Both have managed to grasp some amount of authenticity. The Shack does this with vivid yellows and stucco, tile and sparse furnishings. Mexicali accomplishes this with its elbow to elbow seating, and visible grill, fire crackling away. In both cases these aren’t the sort of places you take someone out who got dressed up real fancy.

While design is nice, people come for the food. This is where things diverge, and quickly. There is only a set amount of things that can, and will, end up on your taco, so the difference comes in quality of ingredients and how they’re handled. The Shack is all about quantity over quality; it has a widely popular ten tacos for ten dollars deal. Mexicali, on the other hand, does not have dollar tacos. In fact, a meal at Taco Shack will set you back about six bucks: Mexicali nine. Three dollars doesn’t sound like much of a difference until you realize how many nickels and dimes you had to count, or cans you had to return.

But what if money wasn’t an object? What if, damn the torpedoes, you decide to put down those three extra dollars? Well then you will be rewarded, and those on the street will gaze upon thee with great awe and envy (think Lance Armstrong, but don’t let it go to your head, tacos don’t last long). The ingredients are just so far superior there’s no question as to why tacos here cost more.

The fresh teriyaki marinated tuna steak taco from Mexicali Blue was served on two blue maize tortillas, topped with a helping of unctuous guacamole that was left chunky, and a drizzle of wasabi aioli. As per usual, it was dosed with a healthy bunch of cilantro and came with a slice of lime. For those of you that loathe cilantro, they’ll 86 it for you on your request.  I ordered my tuna extra rare and was disappointed at its cold center and over marinating. Other than the temperature issue, the food exploded with flavor and boasted several textural components that made each bite exciting.

There is something to be said about being able to get 10 tacos for 10 dollars, though. When given the option of either spending near 10 dollars and getting a  taco and a side, or spending 10 dollars and getting a sack of tacos, it’s not hard to see why people pick the latter. To be fair in my comparisons, I spent as close to the same amount on lunch at Taco Shack as I did Mexicali Blue: Enter the Taco Shack Sack.

You don’t think that’s a lot of tacos at first. Taco Shack’s tacos are generic, TexMex things. Puny by Mexicali standards. The go to tacos are beef and bean, chicken and bean, and bean and bean for vegetarians. They’re spiced well with pungent, familiar Mexican flavors like garlic and cumin, finished with the trifecta of lettuce, onion and tomato. A little sour cream and shredded cheese is present and you can get little packets of Cholitas hot sauce at the counter. I come for the tacos, but I stay for you, mi chuletita Cholita. Another reason to come to the Shack is its selection of Jaritos, pure cane sodas, hechen en Mexico. Try the tamarind or the mandarin, but the pineapple is fine if you like things sweeter.

I don’t make it past taco three. I’m not sure if it’s the combination of sour cream and refried beans, but I feel like I’ve been eating lead Matchbox cars. And that’s the appeal of Taco Shack. The food isn’t 5-star, but the time spent with friends as you try to polish off a sack will be. The morning after, not so much.

In a sea of restaurants, it’s not always easy to decide what to eat, but it’s never hard to decide what you like. My vote goes to Mexicali Blue. Sacks?! We don’t need no stinking sacks! Viva la taqueria!