ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Few restaurant openings were as hyped this year as the Albuquerque taco/tequila spot by Mark Kiffin, the chef and owner of The Compound in Santa Fe. Kiffin and his team set out to defy history. After the demise at the same location of Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill, another Santa Fe spot serving Mexican tacos, it seemed like a tall order, indeed. Nevertheless, the bright blue faÃ§ade was completed and in late January, Zacatecas Tacos and Tequila opened to diners from Nob Hill and beyond.
Zacatecas is a taco shop and it’s trendy, flaunting both gourmet quality and prices: It will need the former to support the latter, especially to a hard-to-woo Albuquerque audience not swayed by any chef’s previous credentials. Like many eaters, we all just want good food that seems like a fair value. For the most part, Zacatecas comes together, even on a busy night with a constant small crowd near the door waiting for tables.
The convivial space has open garage-door-style patio windows along one wall, a bar at the back with a lone TV, usually tuned to local sports. The kitchen is tucked farther back, with servers coming and going nonstop.
|Zacatecas Tacos and Tequila
LOCATION: 3423 E. Central at Amherst, 255-8226, zacatecastacos.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays
Immediately you’ll notice that the noise level is quite high. There might be a fine-dining chef behind the menu, but at its heart this spot is a tequila bar designed for socializing. The scene is hopping: This appears to be the first stop of many for the customers’ evenings; the house margarita ($5) is sweet but still tasty – letting the ice melt helps thin out the flavors a bit. The full list of tequilas to sample should beckon any agave fan.
Appetizers include Totopos ($3, $8 with guacamole), incredibly thick chips perfect for dredging up the lime-heavy guacamole or the two house-made salsas, and savory and sweet chicken Empanadas ($6) with nuts and fruit. Crispy Fried Sopes ($8 with pork) are draped in beans and stringy but still well-seasoned banana-leaf-roasted pork. The masa sopes underneath, however, have a stale chewiness that is either from age or overfrying – an easy-to-fix issue.
There are full entrées of pork ribs or glazed salmon, but the tacos are where much of the menu focus is placed, for good reason. Head directly for plates of tacos (two double-tortilla tacos), and let the noshing begin. Seared Pacific Rock Cod ($10) was perfectly cooked – moist and tender, though the mild flavor of the fish was overwhelmed by the potent condiments of coleslaw, pickled veggies and mango habanero salsa. The spicier Chicken Tinga ($9), with chorizo marinade and salsa, sneaked up on unsuspecting taste buds. For all of the tacos, there was enough filling to abundantly stuff two soft corn tacos, but you could stretch to three or even four without too much trouble.
Dessert brought a cream-cheese-textured sweet custard – even stiffer than a pot du créme – so it is slightly misleading that the menu calls it Kahlua Coffee Flan ($5), but the bites are still deceptively delicious.
Despite the standing line of diners, it was a long wait to get the check – without that issue the meal could end on a sweeter note.