I was very excited to try the new Taco Republic restaurant when it finally opened after the usual construction delays. Beautifully positioned to capture the overflow from its across-the-street neighbor Oklahoma Joe’s, I had watched its transformation from a former gas station and was intrigued by the new setup. Part indoors, part out, this place is made for hanging out and enjoying a beer at happy hour. The ambiance the restaurateurs have created is oh-so-very-cool. Brilliant, really. When it’s nice out the whole space is open, but that space can still be utilized when the temperatures dip. It’s the latest in a growing line of successful restaurants developed by bread & butter concepts, the group that also owns Urban Table, Gram & Dun and BRGR.
So it was with a sense of anticipation that I stopped by for lunch one afternoon. It was a chilly day, so the soft walls on the outdoor area were down and the heat lamps were full throttle. My friend and I started with guacamole which came with a huge basket of chips. We ordered salsa verde on the side. There’s a squeeze bottle of rojo salsa at every table which reminded me of the big bottles of barbecue sauce that grace the tables across the street. The red salsa was a bit sweet, but it had way more flavor than the green, which needed a major shot of hot sauce to give it heat and a reason to eat it. The chipotle salsa, I noted on a subsequent visit, packs some heat though it doesn’t have a ton of chipotle smokiness.
The menu consists of cheese dips, tacos, tortas and even tamales. Tacos are categorized by meat, chicken or veggie; I tried the Puerco Rojos with shredded pork, black beans, sauteed onions and peppers, as well as one with grilled chicken, mole and chipotle slaw. In both cases I thought the sauce and fillings were better than the actual meat, with both the chicken and pork being a bit on the dry side. If they could find a way to keep the meats moist, they’d be flying out of the kitchen. I had sampled several tacos at the Taco Republic truck that roams around town and was more impressed with those offerings, perhaps because the tacos were churned out on a smaller scale.
On another visit, we started with a decadent queso fundido with melted Chihuahua cheese, roasted poblano peppers and chorizo, served with flour tortillas for scooping. We resisted the temptation to eat the whole cazuela lest we ruin our appetites; it would not be difficult to make a meal of it. It made great leftovers the next day. We followed that up with a rich and satisfying tortilla soup, the kind that is thick, not brothy. Each dip into the cute crock produces a spoonful of avocado, chicken, cheese and, of course, strips of tortilla.
Upon seeing Frito pie on the menu, we couldn’t resist ordering it since it’s a rarity outside of New Mexico where the unusual dish was invented. It typically consists of Fritos that have been smothered with a beef, bean and cheese topping, but we chose Taco Republic’s chicken chili version instead. It was served the traditional way, on top of Fritos still in the bag. If you like sweet and salt, this dish is for you.
The wood-fired chicken was originally a carry-out order only, but now it’s a menu item in a half-chicken size. It was served with Charro beans and rice, and corn tortillas for making mini-tacos. The chicken was smoked and very moist, creating a nice option for those who might want a healthy menu option.
Next I hope to swing by and grab some street tacos to-go for breakfast; the menu is short but looks very sweet.
Taco Republic is a work in progress, but one with a huge upside. Though the food doesn’t yet hit on all cylinders all the time, for the most part each of my meals were satisfying and I’ve left wanting to return. And the way the restaurant was devised is just SO inventive. It’s the sort of joint I would imagine you’d find in Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas, two big food destinations that are full of fun and unique venues. And it’s important to note that this restaurant is in capable hands with the Gaylins at the helm. I suspect that next spring, it will be THE patio of choice for lazy afternoons and Happy Hours. There’s no question we have plenty of Mexican restaurants around town, but how many score so high on the cool factor scale?