By Jay Bennett
A faithful Budget Beat reader recently steered me toward a place I’d never heard of called El Taco Tote. Like just about every living being, I love Mexican food, so I was excited about this discovery on Phoenix’s west side, on Camelback Road near 35th Avenue.
Expecting a hole-in-the-wall, I was surprised to find that El Taco Tote is an El Paso-based chain with two Phoenix stores, two Tucson stores, and several locations in Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. Generally, I’d hoped to avoid writing about chains on Budget Beat, but I really enjoyed this place.
The concept at El Taco Tote is “build your own taco.” A typical combo platter gives you two large and freshly made tortillas and a generous helping of your choice of meat (steak, chicken, pork, fish, shrimp, all prepared in numerous ways) on each tortilla. I tried the top sirloin and adobado pork tacos; the missus, a self-proclaimed “lazy pescatarian,” ordered fish tacos and shrimp tacos. All the meats we tried were fresh and tasty, and though they were not exactly made to order, they were the next best thing to it. The fish, especially, was an unexpected treat. Some places give you weird heavily battered processed fish sticks, but these lightly breaded pieces looked as if they were actually cut from a fish.
While you wait for your food — this is not fast food, as El Taco Tote likes to remind you with signs that declare as much — you can watch the cooks as they man the expansive grills, preparing all the many kinds of meat. You can also watch as someone mixes the tortilla dough (both corn and flour), rolls it out, and grills them. Very cool.
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An El Taco Tote tortilla maker in action.
When they’re served, the tacos come out as just a tortilla and its meat. It’s your job to customize your meal at a bar in the center of the restaurant. There you’ll find all manner of salsa, pico de gallo, guacamole, diced onions, cilantro, grilled onions, grilled peppers, tomatoes, radishes, and limes. Signs placed in front of the various salsas and toppings give you helpful serving suggestions. For example, upon El Taco Tote's suggestion, I successfully paired the Cambray (a chunky, green salsa) with my adobado. Everything but the guac seemed fresh. Though flavorful, it not surprisingly was from a mix — and if your guac wasn’t made five minutes ago, it’s barely worth eating.
Top sirloin and pork adobado tacos, along with a Papota, two kinds of salsa, and an horchata on the rocks. (photos by Laura Hahnefeld) Still, that’s a minor complaint. Everything we tried was darn good. And on the “Tote Pack” combo, you get what they call a Papota, which is really just a baked potato with butter. But it’s something different — and loaded with salsa verde, onions, and cilantro, it was a carb-tastically pleasant complement to my meal.
Given the number of good-to-great Mexican places around near where I work and live, I’m probably not driving all the way across town on a regular basis to hit El Taco Tote. But I recommend your giving it a shot if you live anywhere near the I-17 corridor and like inexpensive Mexican food (which I'm pretty sure you do). It’s tacos, and on your terms, so what are you waiting for?