Sat, 8am-3pm; Sun, 9am-2pm
The recently expanded Taco Xpress is about as far from an upscale chef-owned restaurant as it's possible to get. It's a delightfully funky little taqueria with a simple bargain menu, counter service, and mismatched tables and chairs. What puts it in a league with much more sophisticated eateries is the good food and the personality of the owner, Maria Corbalan. She's a hard-working, gregarious woman with a genuine talent for making her clientele feel welcome, pampered even. While Maria works the room, schmoozing the crowd and calling everyone by name, her cooks serve up wonderful homestyle Mexican food, true comida casera.
Since the joint's reputation is built on tacos, that's where I decided to start. Breakfast tacos with a choice of fillings go for 99¢, with the hefty variety on the lunch menu running a little higher, say $1.25 to $1.80. All tacos are made with your choice of flour or homemade corn tortillas. Go for the corn. On my first visit, I chose a Taco al Pastor ($1.80), tender pork marinated in spices cooked on a grill rather than on a standup rotisserie, then sprinkled with chopped cilantro and onion. The Carne Guisado ($1.75) taco is filled with a hearty stew of toothsome beef chunks, cooked slow until they've rendered their own delicious, spicy gravy. The Picadillo ($1.50), lean ground beef studded with chopped potatoes, onions, and peppers, really tingles the tongue. They are equally wonderful.
On another lunchtime expedition, I observed well-known local musicians Stephen Bruton and Charlie Sexton finishing meals with their families and basking in the glow of Maria's loving attention. This trip, I opted for a take-out meal of gorditas – thick handmade corn tortilla pockets filled with savory meats, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and grated cheese. Don't be fooled by the jittery little dog hawking faux gorditas on TV; belly up to the counter at Maria's and order the genuine article. The gorditas (literally, "little fat ones") here are plump and juicy, stuffed with your choice of picadillo, chicarron, carne, or pollo guisado, chicken or beef fajitas for only $2.10 each. The piquant pollo guisado is cooked in a flavorful tomato broth, well-seasoned with peppers and makes a hearty, filling peasant meal.
I've been too stuck on tacos and gorditas to make it through the rest of the menu, but many repeat visits are in order. All menu items can be ordered a la carte or there's the option of creating a plate of two tacos, two enchiladas, two chalupas, or two gorditas with a side of rice for a very reasonable $4.95. Breakfast plates include Migas ($4.95) with potatoes, beans, and tortillas, and there are both breakfast and lunch options for vegetarians. There are bottled sodas and waters, plus a fresh batch of agua fresca de sandia (fresh watermelon juice) to wash it all down. If you're the type who thinks Mexican food calls for cold beer, BYOB because Maria doesn't have a liquor license. Someday soon, Maria plans to feature live music on the little tree-shaded patio outside during the noon hour. Go meet Maria. Her joint is top of the line. – V.W.