Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Loli's Mexican Cravings

I have to say that I've been on something of a taco kick lately. It all started a few months ago when we stumbled across Senor Taco in Pinellas Park and indulged in their decadent, Yucatecan-inflected fare, which was soon followed by a visit to Taqueria Acapulco in Tampa, a more authentic experience with actual abuelas behind the counter cranking out tortillas and carne asada. Now comes my latest encounter (courtesy of both my wife and FOB Eric R.) at Loli's Mexican Cravings, a ramshackle diner located on a scruffy stretch of Benjamin Road (8005 Benjamin, to be precise) in a largely undeveloped corner of Tampa's Town & Country neighborhood.

Unless you happened to be seeking Loli's out, you probably wouldn't find it. The restaurant (which appears to have been a house and/or small office at one time before opening in August 2014) shares its property with a granite/marble warehouse and features a Country Inn & Suites, a WaWa convenience mart, and a vacant lot (discarded office furniture provided at no extra charge) as neighbors. When walking over from your impromptu parking spot in said vacant lot (the small vehicle area next to the building is almost always full), you can wave to commercial jet pilots on landing approach to Runway 19R at TPA.

Takeout is primarily the way to go here as indoor seating space is limited (there are maybe 6 tables to accommodate the ample lunch crowd). Although there'll likely be an ordering line out the front door if you arrive between 11:30am and 1:30p, the Loli's crew is pretty efficient - on both of my crowded visits, I waited less than 10 minutes for my food.

Owners Josue and Maria Garcia appear to rely on a strategy of limited size menu that emphasizes technique and ingredient quality (for example, I saw one of the staff hand-making flour tortillas even during lunch rush - no prefab here). Diners can choose from about 10 different fillings (mostly meat and fish) presented in either taco, quesadilla, or sope form. They also offer a few varieties of tamales (Thursday through Saturday only) and tortas - that's about it. For my first order (see above), I opted for a shrimp taco, a chile relleno tamale, and a campechano (mixed grill) taco, plus a medium jamaica (hibiscus) drink to wash everything down. Back in my car, after applying a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a touch of dark chipotle salsa to my quarry, I dug in and was instantly pleased. The house shrimp is marinated, not fried, and served with a handful of shredded cabbage for contrast, while the mixed grill taco included mostly marinated cubed steak with hearty chunks of tomato, avocado, and onion. And, yes, the chile relleno tamale was as tasty as it was unique (I can't recall ever seeing one of these before).

Visit No. 2 was just as successful. This time, I tried a carnitas (shredded pork) sope, featuring an open-faced, thick and crunchy tortilla topped with a healthy-sized mound of refried beans, meat, lettuce, sliced avocado, queso blanco, and sour cream (eaten at home, I might add - no way this was going to be consumed in a vehicle), messy and filling in equal measures, and all for only $3.

Of course, there were also more tacos (plus a horchata), including fish (lightly breaded with cabbage and pico de gallo) and my personal favorite, lengue (beef tongue) with onions and cilantro. While I still have a slight preference for the fish tacos at California Tacos to Go, I had no issues at all with these.

Clearly, Loli's has established its bona fides as a taco force to be reckoned with in the Tampa Bay area, and at only a 15-minute drive from the Canteen, I daresay they have earned their status as my new go-to taco joint whenever the espiritu moves me...

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