Tacos San Miguel
2120 N. Claiborne Ave., 940-1883; 3517 20th St., Metairie, 267-4027
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Bold flavors, homemade salsas, quick service and low prices
The language barrier can be an issue, especially at the New Orleans location.
Finally, a local answer to the Mexican taquerias you may have pined for after visits to Texas or California.
Finding authentic Mexican food in New Orleans once required a concerted effort, and often led to scantly publicized storefront restaurants in Terrytown or Kenner. The change we see today came fast on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, however, and now convincing Mexican food is abundant. In fact, some of the leading purveyors have already expanded since rolling into town two or three years ago, as is the case for my favorite New Orleans taquerias, Tacos San Miguel.
Electrical contractor Alex Cruz moved here from Brownsville, Texas, shortly after Katrina to seek recovery work. His mother runs a taqueria in Texas, and Alex says cooking is his passion. So when he saw the influx of fellow Latinos and noticed the dearth of authentic taquerias, he knew there was a business niche waiting for him. By November 2006, he and wife Janet opened their first taqueria in the Seventh Ward and before long the electrical business took a backseat.
Homemade flour tortillas, a long roster of meats dripping with flavor from various peppers, salsas and fruit, and bargain prices quickly made Tacos San Miguel a hit. The business logo, a riff on the Tecate beer label, proclaimed "Hecho en NOLA," or "Made in NOLA." After 16 months, the Cruz family opened a second more-ambitious restaurant near Lakeside Shopping Center, where the tagline is "Hecho en Metairie."
At the heart of each shop are the meats, all waiting in prepared batches along the steam counters, but the sister locations diverge sharply in most other aspects. The original is a sparsely decorated joint with a short menu, a handful of tables, a selection of Mexican sodas and a bottle opener tethered by string to the counter. The Metairie expansion has patio seating, a happy hour with specialty cocktails and a much larger menu that includes salads, children's options and even burgers, albeit thoroughly Latinized versions with poblano peppers and spicy chorizo sausage.
Ordering most items at either restaurant means picking one of the meats and then choosing the mode of delivery, whether a straight-up taco with onions and cilantro, a burrito packed dense as a brick with rice and beans and grilled to firmness, or a plate option to basically make your own tacos with a foil-wrapped supply of piping-hot tortillas on the side.
Diced beef or chicken fajitas, heavily-seasoned picadillo ground beef and grilled steak are all safe bets, though some other selections fall into the ambiguous realm of acquired tastes. Chicharrones, or pork skins, are stewed, soft and flabby rather than the fried, salty, crunchy type in line with locally familiar cracklins. The lengua is chunky and thick, with the same texture as your own tongue, and if you don't already like cow's tongue this probably is not the version to win you over.
Trompo is chopped pork beautifully marinated in sour citrus flavors and grilled into crunchy bits. Rajas is a vegetarian mixture of roasted poblano peppers with chunks of smooth, mild panela cheese.
The Metairie restaurant is more comfortable and offers more options, but the New Orleans original remains a convenient and quick stop for meals on the go. Before Katrina, a debate over the best authentic taquerias in the area would have made for a brief conversation. Now, there's room to argue preferences even within the same family of restaurants.