Taco Loco Cantina
847 New North Rd, Mount Albert
Ph: (09) 215 8542
WE SPENT: $116 for two
WE THOUGHT: 15 - Good
A couple of Saturdays ago, we left our house and drove to another time and place.
Taco Loco Cantina used to be a gas station. It has a big covered concrete forecourt and a lot of old-school school chairs. The interior is swimming pool blue and clay bank orange; the painted skulls are mostly smiling.
It was 2019 going on 1978. The air was warm; the day had been very bright. It was early evening now and nobody had to be anywhere or do anything. One couple dined with their dog at their feet. A kid bounced a ball in the main dining room. I felt like a tourist who would go home and tell their friends about this really cool place they'd found by walking in the opposite direction to anyone with a TripAdvisor app.
The truth is, I've never been a tourist in Mexico. I literally had my first nachos at Disneyland and, thanks to that formative teen moment, I'll always love Donald more than Mickey and corn chips will be forever associated with sour cream and melted yellow plastic masquerading as cheese. More recently, I've come to understand that while Americanised "Tex-Mex" has been recognised by food writers since the 1960s, actual Mexican cuisine is approximately 9000 years older than that.
Taco Loco pitches itself somewhere in between. Crunchy, cheesy jalapenos poppers ($12) taste like contemporary Kiwi pub food; a meat, rice and refried bean-stuffed burrito felt like a pretty solid nod to a post-Conquistador South American homeland.
About those poppers. The chillis ($12 for six) are pleasantly hot but the filling is like putting your tongue inside a recently boiled kettle. Literally, screamingly hot. Proceed with caution and douse with beer as necessary. Mexican buffalo wings ($12 for six) were a sweeter, milder experience (but, to be honest, a bit too kid's birthday party for me).
Fish tacos have become a middle-class suburban cliche; the spag bol of the 2000s that no two people make the same way. What sort of fish does Taco Loco use?
"Hmmm," said the waitperson. "I never remember. Wait, it's the most popular one . . . "
So we had the snapper taco ($20) and it was awesome. The fish was battered (sacrilege, I naively thought but a well-travelled colleague assures me they do this in Mexico too) and cooked in properly hot oil, so the outside was golden and crispy and the fish itself moist and not overdone.
Share a burrito because they're only a little bit smaller than a roll of handy towels. My choice was heavily influenced by the restaurant's Instagram feed, which had earlier featured an entire pork roast with crackle. Unfortunately, only the meat ended up in the burrito - very filling, but drier than I expected (and so big I could eat only half of it). James hit the jackpot with a pulled beef version that was so moist my mouth is watering as I type this sentence five days later.
The burritos are a full meal, containing rice, beans and cheese. They come with salad and a dollop of guacamole that was the most perfect expression of guacamole I've eaten. Creamy rather than chunky and precisely the right amount of citrus and garlic for my taste buds. One woman's avocado is another woman's house deposit but I'm happy to rent for as long as it takes for someone to give me this exact recipe.
We finished with flan, which, in Mexico, is really creme caramel. A chocolate squiggle was surplus to requirements; the caramel sauce was intense, but the egg custard "creme" too firm. Perhaps I'm being picky. Taco Loco is a good time, not a fine dine - pull up a school chair, order a margarita, and watch the very last of summer slide by.