Fate can be interesting. Most weeks, for example, I choose the restaurant I’m going to review. This week, it fell into my lap — with an unexpected disappointment providing me the chance to discuss a long-overlooked gem.
My original intention was to discuss a new hookah and tapas spot called the Luna Lounge on Las Vegas Boulevard, just north of Encore. It’s a beautifully decorated space that, according to its website, has a fairly interesting menu. But when I arrived, I was immediately disappointed. Although the place has only been open a few months, approximately one-third of the menu items have already been eliminated — crossed off the menu with black masking tape. And as I took note of that fact, sipping an overpriced beer, the staff proceeded to rearrange the tables and chairs around me to gear up for the club crowd they were expecting later in the evening. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of reviewing the place as I’d planned. But I realized I was only a few hundred yards from one of Las Vegas’ most popular Mexican restaurants, which for some reason I’ve never addressed in this space. So, thanks to fate, this week’s column will not be dedicated to the disappointing Luna Lounge, but rather, the much more satisfying Tacos El Gordo.
For the uninitiated, Tacos El Gordo is a chain restaurant that started in Tijuana, immigrated to California and now has two locations in Las Vegas. The most popular is the one on Las Vegas Boulevard, which is known for satisfying the munchies of many intoxicated late-night revelers in a seedy little strip mall. But there’s also a stand-alone spot downtown, on Charleston Boulevard between Spencer and Bruce streets.
If you don’t speak Spanish, your first visit to either location is likely to be a little intimidating, thanks to a clumsy menu and a peculiar ordering system. The restaurants offer a variety of meats, ranging from familiar options such as spicy pork, carne asada and chorizo to more exotic choices like tripe, beef head, tongue and brains. You can get them on tacos ($2-$2.25), quesadillas ($4-$4.50), sopes ($4-$4.50) or tostadas ($4-$4.50). You an also opt for some less traditional items. My favorite is vampiros, or vampire tacos ($4-$4.50). They consist of two small tortillas, grilled until crispy, then packed with your choice of meat and a mountain of toppings (including an unexpected dose of pineapple). A larger version, the mulas ($4-$4.50), are chewy rather than crispy. Or get an order of fries ($5-$10), which are basically a play on nachos, using shoestring fries instead of tortilla chips and incorporating your choice of meat. While the latter are delicious, I’d recommend sticking with a small order, which is pretty damn huge.
The toughest part of dining in this restaurant is figuring out where to place your order. Each person at the walk-up counter is dedicated to particular proteins. So if you want a carne asada taco and an al pastor quesadilla, you should technically be ordering from two different stations. But I honestly didn’t worry about that. Whomever you speak to is usually willing to shout your desire over to the appropriate person.
My favorite meat here is probably the tongue. Slow-cooked to eliminate any toughness generally associated with the muscle, it has a thick, rich taste that the carne asada can’t match. My second favorite is probably the well-seasoned al pastor. The brain (which isn’t listed on all of the menus, so you may have to ask for it), has a rich mineral flavor that’s very satisfying. Unfortunately, its mushy texture doesn’t lend itself well to tacos. I generally find the more traditional meats a little disappointing. Neither the carne asada nor the spicy pork pack as much flavor as I’d like.
In a town sadly lacking in quality Mexican food, Tacos El Gordo is well above average. But your best bet here is to go a little out of your comfort zone and order some of its more exotic offerings. But even if you decide to play it safe, I’d recommend it over the Luna Lounge. I doubt Tacos El Gordo will be eliminating menu items any time soon.
TACOS EL GORDO, 3049 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 641-8228, 1724 East Charleston Boulevard, 251-8226. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.