I have a good feeling about La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop.
A few days ago, I bumped into a couple of pals at this new spot on 16th Street, and one of them seemed surprised that we actually had the run of the place.
"I thought it would be packed," she said.
Soon, my dear. Soon.
On another visit, my dining companion swooned over the tacos as we chatted about life, restaurants, and a mutual friend who's been on the road for business. A few minutes later, that very same friend walked in to grab some takeout. I love it when that happens.
Remember the grassroots excitement about Pizza A Metro on West Thomas Road, back when it opened? Everyone was talking about it, and soon the tiny parking lot was perpetually full of devoted regulars and curious newbies. The organic buzz about La Condesa reminds me of that, except nowadays we have Twitter to help spread the word even further. Lately, it seems my favorite food-obsessed people are chatting about cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) an awful lot, and I'm pretty sure it's from this tasty little taco joint.
La Condesa debuted a month and a half ago on 16th Street, CenPho's unofficial Mexican restaurant row. (And Mexican everything else — it's the 'hood.) It was hard to miss it when it opened, thanks to a big sign out front depicting La Catrina, Lady of the Dead. She's the iconic Day of the Dead calavera wearing a wide-brimmed, flower-topped hat. When I saw her bony face smiling down on me, I was immediately intrigued.
From Tradiciones at Roosevelt to Tortas El Güero and Barrio Cafe farther north toward Thomas, there's plenty of competition in the way of Mexican food, but nobody's doing any thing quite like La Condesa. It's a pretty simple menu — tacos, corn quesadillas, and burros — although the flavors aren't limited to Sonoran, like at many restaurants in these parts. There's seafood from the coastal regions, Oaxacan black mole, Mexico City-style chicken tinga, and cochinita pibil from the Yucatan.
The setup is fast-casual — order at the counter, take a number, and wait for your food to arrive. The dining room is clean and spare, scattered with handsome wooden tables and wrought iron chairs (local furniture store Bellas Artes de Mexico did the interior decor). Huge, colorful canvases by Mexican artists Manuel Gilavalos y Garcia and Ricardo Ramirez bring a festive edginess to the space with large-scale images of La Catrina and masked luchadores.
Once you snag a seat, you need to get an eyeful of the fantastic salsa bar here. This is the best selection of homemade salsas I've seen in ages, a spectrum of colors and flavors that are a joy to sample. There are usually eight or more things to choose from, including an excellent roasted chipotle salsa flecked with black bits of charred pepper; tangy, bright green tomatillo salsa; pico de gallo; smooth, fiery red chile salsa; an unusual peanut salsa; cool cilantro crema (perfect for soothing your taste buds); pink pickled radishes that pair perfectly with cochinita; and a strawberry salsa whose delicate heat lingers past the initial sweetness.
Now here's my one major hang-up with La Condesa: The salsa is wasted on the chips they bring you. On my first visit, they served me a gratis basket of crispy, piping hot chips. On all subsequent visits, the tortilla shards were sadly cold and doused in way too much salt. It seems like a simple thing to fix — make the chips truly worthy of those beautiful salsas and it will improve the dining experience significantly.
Soft, freshly griddled corn tortillas and flavorful fillings made the tacos a real treat. Combined with corn-studded rice and good homemade beans (was that a hint of pork fat I tasted?), a two-taco plate was quite a feast for roughly seven bucks. For a few dollars more, a side order of grilled calabacitas (Mexican zucchini) made a welcome accompaniment.
Beer-battered shrimp, mesquite-charbroiled carne asada, and Aztec tinga (chicken simmered with tomato and onion) were well prepared. Better yet was the beer-battered dogfish shark, a thick piece of firm, juicy white fish. Even the veggie taco — filled with roasted poblano, onion, mushrooms, spinach, garlic, and Oaxacan cheese — was delicious, not a meatless afterthought.
I fell in love at first bite with the tender Mayan cochinita pibil, pork seasoned with achiote rojo and slow-roasted in banana leaves. Some marinated onions and a dab of that pickled radish salsa gave a welcome burst of acidity to the luscious pork. As for the shredded chicken in black mole sauce, I appreciated its depth — it was nutty and sweet, but the dark chocolate and spices added savory mystery as well.
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Just about any of the taco fillings can be wrapped up into a burro with beans and rice, and I had no complaints with one stuffed with chicken mole. But it was so much more interesting to eat a quesadilla.
Forget what you think about a glorified cheese crisp. These are nothing of the sort. Instead, imagine a sort of Mexican calzone, a two-handed thing made of deep-fried corn masa. Again, these are stuffed with mostly the same fillings as the tacos.
I sank my teeth into a crisp, golden Maria Sabina Quesa and happily gobbled up the slow ooze of melted Oaxacan cheese and sautéed wild mushrooms. The earthy mushroom flavor was great — I only wished there'd been more of them.
It's easy to fill up here — perhaps that's why La Condesa doesn't offer any desserts. But they do have horchata, served in a 32-ounce cup. Filled with a generous amount of pecans, strawberry chunks, and canteloupe, you'll want to get to the bottom of it just to scoop out the sweet goodies.