Tapacubo at The Graduate Hotel Brings $3 Tacos and Pressed Tortas to Tempe

Cubano Torta from Tapacubo
Cubano Torta from Tapacubo
Lauren Saria

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Tapacubo Location: 225 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe Open: Less than a week Eats: Mexican Price: $10+/person

On Friday, the second dining outlet at the new Graduate Hotel Tempe opened its doors to the public for dinner service. Under the direction of chef Brian Archibald, Tapacubo brings approachable Mexican cuisine in a playful atmosphere to the neighborhood.

The restaurant's succinct menu of starters, tacos, tortas, and sides will appeal to fans of similar places such as Doug Robson's Gallo Blanco, spots where you can count on good, affordable Mexican eats served with a side of humility and fun. (And the fact that both restaurants are located in chic boutique hotels definitely adds to the sense of familiarity.)

See also: The Normal at Graduate Tempe: Red Velvet Waffles and Bottomless Cups of Coffee

Guacamole
Guacamole
Lauren Saria

Tapacubo's street food theme manifests itself with an auto shop-inspired design. The restaurant's bar, for example, features large gas pumps from which the bartenders will (eventually) be able to pour margaritas. Other style elements include an abundance of cinder blocks, subway tiles, and large rolling garage doors that open onto the restaurant's patio.

When it comes to the food, the goal seems to be keeping things simple and short. There were just six starters, five tacos, and three tortas on the menu when we stopped in. The good news is there seem to be few bad choices on the list.

The guacamole ($8.50) was the least memorable dish we tried but still offered a nice variety of flavor from serrano chiles, cotija cheese, and pepitas. The best part of the deal was definitely the chips; thick, greasy, and covered in salt, they were impossible to resist.

All three of the tacos we tried were larger than your average street taco and came on warm, soft corn tortillas.

The achiote chicken taco ($3) featured moist cubes of grilled chicken smothered in a mildly spicy cream sauce (the menu read "avocado crema") along with crisp vegetables and cotija cheese. It may have be the favorite, though we also enjoyed the cerveza batter cod taco ($3), which came with a large piece of fried white fish, chiptole creama, and shaved radish.

Our least favorite of the pack was The Papi ($3). Though the Modelo-braised short rib barbacoa was flavorful, we found the combo of meat, cotija, and pickled onions a little dry.

 

Pollo Torta
Pollo Torta
Lauren Saria

The tortas may be a bit troublesome for those who stick to tradition when it comes to Mexican food. Rather than being served on fluffy bolillo or talera rolls, Tapacubo serves its Mexican sandwiches toasted and pressed, a la an Italian panino. Considering that fact, it's understandable that the Cubano torta ($8.50) was such a success. With thick slices of ham, a layer of shredded pork shoulder, melted Swiss cheese, and house made pickles this is a great rendition of a Cuban sandwich.

The pollo torta ($8) echoed the flavors found in the chicken taco with more of the same grilled chicken, chipotle creama, and cotija cheese. This time the dish also got a handful of shredded lettuce.

If you're considering sides with your meal, the white beans ($3) are a good option. Studded with pork belly carnitas and cilantro, these beans are heavy with smoke then balanced with bits of bright herb. The sweet corn ($3) is also a good choice. Served off the cob, the side blends corn, chile, cotija cheese, and cream for a Mexican take on the usual creamed corn. A touch more spice might have been nice, but you can always achieve that yourself with a dash of hot sauce.

Drink options at Tapacubo include three tiers of margaritas (leaded, premium, and diesel), as well as a handful of speciality cocktails, wines, and beers. With a prime location just steps from campus and approachable, affordable food, Tapacubo is likely to be a hit in the Tempe neighborhood. It may not be the most original idea in town but then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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