Naco Taco: style over substance – The Boston Globe

Frijoles charros at Naco Taco in Cambridge.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Frijoles charros at Naco Taco in Cambridge.

An outdoor patio strewn with bright umbrellas and strings of twinkling lights, where staffers sling tacos and a rainbow of salsas from a painted trailer, a slice of Austin style in Central Square. That’s the idea! When Naco Taco opened in May, with Michael Scelfo of Alden & Harlow as consulting chef, it was light at the end of the world’s longest winter. (The torch has been passed to chef de cuisine Amanda Howell and sous chef Robert Preciado, who formerly worked at Alden & Harlow.) Now we would all defrost, consume food laced with chiles and draped in queso, and quaff salt-rimmed beverages as the days grew long.

So we gathered, perhaps shivering a bit, optimists in shorts and short dresses clinging to the patio’s heat lamps. (There is dining indoors, too, of course. It’s just relatively deserted until it rains.) There were no margaritas, but wine and beer and sangria and riffs on the michelada, one of the world’s few beer cocktails legitimately worth drinking. A spicy carrot michelada, with miso and togarashi salt? Hmm. That’s different.

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Different bad. It’s sweet and brackish and off. One gulp illuminates what is right and wrong with Naco Taco. (The name is akin to calling a restaurant “Redneck Diner.” “Naco” is a term for an uncultured lout.) Here is an adventurous, interesting idea. It asks the audience to suspend disbelief, to just try it, though it breaks with tradition and sounds bizarre. Then it fails to reward us for doing so. Sometimes one wonders whether items have gone straight to the menu without anyone’s tasting them first.

A taqueria’s foundation is its tortillas, and this is where Naco’s problems begin. “Good news,” the menu reads. “Our corn tortillas are made in house and are gluten free. Bad (meaning good) news: Our corn tortillas are made in house and are made with lard, vegetarian corn tortillas are available.” Bad (meaning bad) news: Neither version is very enjoyable. The lard overwhelms the sweet, pure corn flavor that makes eating tortillas a pleasure. The vegetarian version doesn’t taste like much, either. Both are tough. Fillings help disguise their flaws, but with each bite, the tortillas detract from rather than add to the taco experience.

Many of the fillings satisfy: a pleasantly greasy lengua, fried beef tongue, with charred tomatillo and chipotle salsa; the al pastor, spit-roasted pork, balanced by burnt pineapple salsa; crisp chicken thigh nuggets with cotija crema and fermented kale; torched avocado with cilantro aioli and smoked almond salsa. This is new-school taco making, in the manner of former Clio pastry chef Alex Stupak, who relocated to New York and created his Empellon restaurants, fueled by a love for Mexican cuisine.

NACO TACO

Larger map / directions

297 Massachusetts Ave.,
Cambridge
MA
617-945-1548.
http:http://www.nacocentral.com.

It is not a bad idea, in any medium, to be well grounded in the canon before heading in one’s own direction. Naco’s tacos vary in execution. Sometimes the meat in the al pastor is a little dry; sometimes the chunks of chicken are bigger or more plentiful than others; sometimes the proteins overwhelm the condiments.

And some constructions just don’t succeed. A taco made with lamb belly is consistently gamy, and the flavor drowns out the mole, pepitas, pickled onion, and radishes that are also in the mix. I’m frequently disappointed by how much lamb fails to taste lamb-y in restaurants, and this meat is still too aggressive. A fish taco is made with fried smelt, which looks nifty: a whole curved fish folded into the tortilla, with cabbage, avocado, and tomatillo crema. The bones surprise diners with limited smelt experience; On one occasion, the fish tastes extra-strong, more like a sardine.

It happens that Naco Taco is at its best when serving things that aren’t tacos.

Those salsas that get lost in a tortilla shine on their own, served as an assortment on a tin tray. They look beautiful and many of them taste great, from charred tomatillo and chipotle salsa to fine salsa roja and salsa verde. Smoked almond salsa is unexpected, almost Asian in flavor. The cremas can taste too sharp on their own, however. Guacamole, a separate order, is the unfortunate brown shade of old avocados. It has little flavor and a strangely whipped texture. In the schema of Mexican restaurant sins, bad guac is up there.

An assortment of salsas with chips.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

An assortment of salsas with chips.

There is a bright, refreshing salad of grilled gem lettuce, charred corn, and papaya. There are excellently porky black beans in a blanket of melted cheese, the dish that delivers the most traditional Tex-Mex pleasure. In a clever riff on chilaquiles, crispy pig ears stand in for tortilla chips. But while one can eat a whole lot of chips, a huge heap of ears is just too much. A few enjoyable bites are enough.

Naco’s tortas, Mexican sandwiches, are much better than its tacos. They are served on a dense, corn-based version of the traditional telera bread, made in house. A taqueria-style rendition of a classic New York egg-and-cheese adds shishito peppers and cilantro aioli to the mix. It’s simple. It’s tasty. It’s not overthought. It’s what more dishes at Naco Taco should be.

Cabeza ahogada is pig’s head, bacon, avocado, and tomatillo crema

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Cabeza ahogada is pig’s head, bacon, avocado, and tomatillo crema

The cabeza ahogada reads like French dip on vacation in Guadalajara. It features pig’s head and bacon, with avocado and tomatillo crema, and it comes swimming in guajillo chile broth. The smoky, spicy liquid suffuses the bread and offsets the rich ingredients. Its warmth is welcome. Naco’s food is curiously lacking in chile heat.

The torta pairs well with the classico, a michelada made with Maggi and Worcestershire sauces, lime, and salt, the best and most traditional of these beer cocktails. A smoked agave version is too sweet, although it might be a hit with shandy devotees. Rose sangria, made with strawberry and jalapeno, is entirely unmemorable; try the red version, which gets a nice lift from mint. There is a compact wine list that is more interesting than it needs to be at a place where everyone seems to be drinking beer. On tap, available by the glass or pitcher, are the likes of Notch Session Pils, Cisco Grey Lady, and Negra Modelo, all of which go well with the food. Bottles range from PBR to Slumbrew porter.

Fish taco, made of a whole fried smelt, cabbage, avocado, and tomatillo crema.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Fish taco, made of a whole fried smelt, cabbage, avocado, and tomatillo crema.

There is no dessert. “Go to Toscanini’s,” chirps a server, sweet as pie and oblivious to the fact that she has just splashed salsa on one diner’s lap. “That’s what we tell everyone.”

A project from Alex Tannenbaum and Brian Lesser (Tavern Road, Sweet Cheeks, and more), Naco Taco has improved greatly since it first opened. The tacos have grown; they were originally served on tortillas the approximate size of a contact lens. The food tastes better across the board. It feels less willful, less like it is remixing inherently tasty cuisine simply for the sake of being different, more like the kind of place people stop after work regularly for a bite and a drink.

Because for tacos, it can be beat, but the outdoor space is a standout. We’ll always have the patio. Until winter, at least.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

A previous version of the map with this story inccorectly identified the location.

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