SANTA FE, N.M. — I have a warm spot in my heart for down-home hole-in-the-wall cafes that serve up basic, satisfying food that can carry you through your day. That coronary spot was tickled when I walked into Felipe’s Tacos, situated in a shopping plaza off Llano Street by St. Michael’s Drive.
Red and white checkered oilcloth covers the tables. A large red cooler holding drinks is decorated with Coca Cola images. Calendars with the business’s name and old-fashioned images hang on the wall behind the register. In an adjoining space, T-shirts are for sale.
Broad-brimmed sombreros hang on the walls. The whole place looks like a bodega that was crammed into your tia’s kitchen.
And this retro vibe is no product of a hip designer. No, you get the feeling this place has looked that way ever since it was a hatchling. It’s authentic and gets the job done, just like its food.
The tacos headlined in the cafe’s name are small, so prepare to order up at least three, maybe more, if you’re looking for a full meal. I was in the market for a light meal when I put in my order, so I just got one al pastor ($1.90) and another with fish ($2.75). You can order the tacos Mexican (with onions and cilantro) or American (with tomatoes and lettuce). I opted for Mexican and the onions were a tad harsh, but the plentiful cilantro countered with a green freshness.
I ordered the heaping tacos to go, which may have contributed to the limpness of the corn tortillas by the time I pulled them out of their wrapping. It was a complete mess to try to lift them and eat them by hand, but no matter. The pork, marinated in a red chile sauce, came in chunks just big enough to chew and with just enough heat to satisfy. The fish was breaded – I prefer it grilled – and just a little dry, but it was all right.
With each order, you get a choice of salsas. With the tacos, I ordered tomatillo, which was bright and hot – a little too hot for my gringo taste. With other orders, I chose pico de gallo, which had just the right amount of heat and veggie freshness.
On another visit, I tried the Burrito Grande with pork ($8.50). The hefty handful (I cut it in half and saved the rest for another meal) also contained beans, cheese, lettuce, rice and avocado.
The rice was a surprise. While it’s often included on the plate in a Mexican-style meal, I haven’t before found it wrapped up in a tortilla as part of a burrito. It contributed to a somewhat mushy texture, which I usually don’t like. In this case, though, it evoked a comfort food feel and flavor that filled my mouth and belly. Besides, rice and beans combined create a complete protein, so you can get the nutrition you need without even adding the meat. That’s something I learned years ago during a visit to Costa Rica, where almost every meal seemed to include a mound of black beans and rice.
My final sampling at Felipe’s Tacos was a quesadilla con pollo ($6.95). Small chunks of chicken were spread generously throughout the plate-sized tortilla, held in place with an equally generous portion of mild melted cheese. A side of guacamole was available to top off each mouthful, if desired. I generally favor a somewhat toastier quesadilla, in which the tortilla is slightly crisp. And I would prefer a greater variety of ingredients, with some type of vegetables or onions scattered in with the meat and cheese. But it was satisfying, if a little salty. Again, I saved a portion for later consumption.
This isn’t the type of place you go for fine dining, but it’s someplace where you can fill your belly for a decent price. It feels both timeless and authentic. I didn’t go at a time when I would run into them, but a friend tells me that students from Santa Fe High just down the street often flock there. Or at least they used to.
Makes sense. And you can even buy a T-shirt or calendar for a souvenir.
Felipe’s Tacos also offers catering, in case you want to throw a party.