Monday, May 13, 2013
Although our family has been in Tampa now for about 2 1/2 months, we finally got around to cashing in my other food-related Xmas present (the dining certificate to SideBern's being the first), a gift card to Taco Bus. Chef Rene Valenzuela (a native of Mexico) started his Mexican food business as a taco truck in the mid-1990s and has since expanded to four permanent locations around town, plus a fleet of mobile trucks to serve fests and catering events. Chef Valenzuela has a clear passion for using fresh, natural ingredients (many of which are vegan-friendly) to create a menu of traditional Mexican street foods from all regions of his home country, an approach that garnered the eventual attention of the Food Network, which filmed a segment of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives at the restaurant in 2011 (Guy Fieri has professed his undying love for the chilorio torta).
Mrs. Hackknife, Hackknifette, and I made our way to the original Taco Bus location (913 E. Hillsborough) for lunch one recent Friday afternoon. The flagship site resembles an urban commune of sorts, consisting of a large unpaved parking lot, two actual buses where orders are taken and assembled, a covered outdoor common area with makeshift seats (for those not getting their nosh to go), and a brick-and-mortar dining room with table service and, possibly most importantly, air conditioning for those oppressive Florida July evenings when you've had one mai tai too many and need some grease to counteract the booze. We were fortunate to arrive right before the lunch rush, which we may have exacerbated by slowing down the ordering process with our many menu selections and gift card (I will neither confirm nor deny this). Anyway, once we received our food, we made our way over to a table in the communal outdoor space and got down to business. We began with a small order of the butternut squash centro (a salsa consisting of grilled squash, tomatoes, onions, and sweet red peppers, topped with queso cotija and pico de gallo), a specialty of the Yucatan peninsula served with tortilla chips. This appetizer was exceedingly colorful (I did have a couple of photos, however, they were lost when I switched cell phones last week - sorry, very unprofessional) and exceedingly delicious, even when scarfed down without the chips. For entrees, I chose the famous torta (sadly, Guy's favorite chilorio is only available on Mondays) stuffed with carne de res desebrada (described as "shredded beef cooked Northern Mexico style with tomatoes and chiles") and a host of other ingredients, including refried beans, mayo, lettuce, jalapeno strips, and cheese, all on a fresh baked roll. While this torta isn't quite the equal of the legendary Mexican sandwiches turned out by Cemitas Puebla in Chi-town, it's darn close and I'd happily return for a second (and a third, fourth, etc.). Mrs. Hackknife was similarly pleased with her tacos, one with beer-battered swai fish and a white cream sauce, the other shredded pork cooked up Yucatan-style in achiote paste and bitter orange (aka cochinita pibil). Even Hackknifette's quesadilla and our drinks (hibiscus lemonade and watermelon agua fresca, both made with fresh fruit) were standout. I will no doubt be back to Taco Bus as many times as possible to hopefully try every item on the menu at some point (and maybe even get some pictures)....