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(out of five)

What a Hottie

Senor Taco
3325 North Broadway

by Les DuLunch

Like most affairs, it began innocently enough. A colorful display caught the eye. After a period of cautious circling, clandestine lunchtime quickies led to long, drawn-out dinners. Then, before I knew it, I was hopelessly hooked.

You see, a new restaurant on my side of town is a rare thing. Although ideal in nearly every other way, north Knoxville doesn't have a whole lot of dining-out options—not that I haven't been around the block enough to know where to go. Litton's can always be counted on for a good time and one thing Halls does have is the Amber Restaurant, which offers a deliciously Southern fried morning-after breakfast. And as long as you avoid the deathly pallid pasta and Volunteer-orange marinara, feasting instead on the buttered garlic bread with the perpetual special of grilled pork chops, the new Louis' will do for a one night stand. But otherwise, it's the usual brightly lit line-up of fast food joints—oh, and a Ruby's.

But the same tired tricks get old. Been there; done that. Time for some fresh meat. When the Mr. Gatti's, located on Broadway where Fairmont empties out, morphed into Senor Taco, Mexican Taqueria, I was intrigued. Ordinarily, I don't find wide handlebar mustaches attractive, but with a "Never say never," and a "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it," I gave myself over to love, exciting and new.

Senor offers seven different varieties of taco—from broiled beef steak to beef tongue—each served in two soft corn tortillas. Hard shells are available only on request. At $1.65 a pop (including salsa bar), they simply can't be beat and should finally crush the annoying Taco Bell Chihuahua and his greasy, cheese-laden products like...well, like a Chihuahua. The lowly fish taco (again, that's only $1.65) is an excellent catch. Nothing more than crumbled pieces of frozen, deep-fried fish, it somehow transcends the ordinary. Is it the crunch of breading with the soft tortilla? Is it the unexpectedly light taste of fish where ordinarily only oily ground beef is found? Who knows. Just make sure it isn't served with tartar sauce; ask for it plain and add your salsa of choice from the salsa bar. Tomatillo, with its vaguely citrus-like tang, makes a particularly nice match.

That salsa bar is a smart feature and a wonderful surprise. It has continued to surprise me since it's been different every time I've visited. Variations on mild and hot traditional tomato salsa (sometimes with cilantro and onions, sometimes without) are complemented by rather greasy guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, and fresh chopped cilantro. Other occasional companions include tomatillo salsa and, on a recent visit, yucateca—a creamy salsa that looks like spinach con queso but is actually made of wallop-packing jalapeno peppers, cilantro, garlic, oil, and, interestingly, eggs.

Senor Taco's burritos ($3.99) are, to borrow a phrase from a similar Kalamazoo establishment I once visited, as big as your head. So are the vegetables he stuffs in the vegetarianos version and the fatty, mole-marinated pork chunks in the al pastor. Any selection makes a fine meal, with or without sides of beans and rice. On the other hand, Senor doesn't quite measure up in the tortas department ($4.99). Served with your choice of meat, lettuce, tomato, onion, and smeared with refried beans and what I hoped at the time wasn't mayonnaise, the sandwich bread everything gets stuffed into isn't toasted or grilled, so what you wind up with halfway through is just a mushy mess. The totally out of place side of French fries are wonderful though—curly, very crisp, and lightly seasoned.

In addition to the flautas, chimichangas, fajitas, and inevitable combo platters that can be found nearly anywhere, Senor Taco also has a bounteous selection of seafood. Crisp tostadas with salty ceviche ($2.25), flaky tilapia cooked in lime and mixed with fresh tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, makes an ideal springtime appetizer. On the entree front, there's garlic- or salsa a la diabla-sautéed shrimp and fish. The entire tilapia—sans head on request—is fried, rendering the thin skin nicely crisp, and then bathed in a light honey-colored garlic sauce ($9.99 with rice). Its flesh is wonderfully sweet and delicate, well worth wrestling with the unfortunate plasticware to extract.

But even though we've gotten to know each other very well over the past few months, Senor Taco still has surprises in store. The fish is just one. There's the tamarindo ($1.25), a juice made from the tamarindo fruit that tastes like tea and flat Pepsi in a really good way, and horchata ($1.25), a refreshingly sweet blend of rice water, cinnamon, sugar, and milk. Menudo is another. Not the sweaty stew of five prepubescent boys you might expect, it is instead a scary combination of beef honeycomb, beef scalded tripe, and beef feet that are cleaned, boiled, spiced, and served over diced onions with oregano and lime. The dish is only available on Saturdays and Sundays and promises to aid a hangover. I'm usually game for trying just about anything new, but my adventurousness completely failed me on a recent Saturday afternoon; somehow, while suffering from just that particular malaise, eating the lining of a cow's first and second stomachs along with its feet didn't seem advisable given an already-queasy stomach. Senor understood.

Cheap, fast, easy, and good. What more could you ask for in a relationship? But will it last? Only time will tell.

March 16, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 11
© 2000 Metro Pulse