One of the pleasant distractions in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina was exploring the new diversity of Latin American food that arrived soon after the workers who came to help rebuild.
Those first taco trucks did not announce their locations via Twitter, so finding them meant scouting flood-wrecked neighborhoods at lunchtime and parking lots at home improvement centers.
Since then, authentic taquerias have cropped up at familiar addresses, but it's still a bit surprising to find Salsas Por El Lago inside a former burger joint in West End. It sits at the strange crux of development and floodwalls where New Orleans meets the lake — along a road mostly traversed by people headed to condo towers or marinas. But this is the part of town that proprietor Sandra Garay knows best, and she had been cooking in the area years before opening the restaurant in 2009.
A Chicago native of Mexican heritage, Garay landed in New Orleans in 2006 in a taco truck she dubbed Taco Loco (not to be confused with Taceaux Loceaux, a truck serving Korean chicken tacos and such outside Uptown bars). This Taco Loco set up shop in the parking lot of a ruined shopping center on Robert E. Lee Boulevard where there were scant options for a hot meal.
Salsas Por El Lago expands on the typical taco truck menu with fajita-style platters, fried fish and cheese-smothered enchiladas, but the bedrock fare of burritos, tamales and $2 tacos are the best bets. The meats are generally good, especially the desebrada, with a taste and texture like debris-style roast beef, and the barbacoa, which has a lusciousness akin to short ribs. The tortilla soup and the menudo, a formidably spicy tripe soup, are large and very satisfying as well.
The real treat of this restaurant, though, is referenced in its name. The kitchen makes a dozen types of salsas. Some are unusual — like the creamy, cilantro-strung Lulu — and many bring intense heat, like the otherwise innocent-sounding Lala.
In January, Garay opened a second restaurant, called Salsas Dos (1325 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 309-7742), which specializes in breakfast burritos. But part of the appeal of the original Salsas is its offbeat environs. In a mashup of cultural totems, pinatas of Corona bottles hang beside a Ms. Pacman arcade game in a room that has the contours of a fast food restaurant but a large, almost tiki-esque bar sporting rifle-shaped tequila bottles.
The clientele includes contractors and office types by day, and at night it's occupied by couples and maybe some Lakeview women chatting over margaritas and salsa at the bar. There are never many of them, but in the way they point out menu changes and chat with the always-upbeat waitresses, it's clear many are regulars. Maybe some have been eating this food since the days when it came from a taco truck.