Tmaz, Taco King, and Chela's
by Lee Lawrence
I have long declared my love affair with tacos, proclaiming them, in an earlier review, the world's ultimate fast food. Imagine my glee, then, at being asked to review Ann Arbor's new taco places. Oh, the investigative reporting that would need to be done!
Well, I've done the research. I've eaten the tacos. Now I can announce some true winners in this expanding field within Ann Arbor's culinary arena.
Tmaz Taqueria, on Packard near Banfield's; Taco King, inside Tienda La Libertad on W. Liberty; and Chela's, around the corner on Maple, all offer inexpensive light fare that highlights tacos--soft corn tortillas wrapped around a meat or vegetable, sprinkled with raw onion and cilantro and served with a lime wedge and salsa on the side. All three spots are individually owned and earnestly managed, with friendly, accommodating staffs. And each has positive and negative attributes. But the overall winner--serving food the most akin to what I've enjoyed in Mexico--is Taco King.
Though the cooks look Hispanic, Taco King is owned by Tunisians Saber and Sihem Naghmouchi. Perhaps because the menu wasn't written by native Spanish speakers, it uses English terms, listing tacos al pastor, for instance, as tacos with marinated pork. Traditionally, the filling for tacos al pastor is sliced from a vertical spit, as for a Greek gyro, but most places in the United States simply marinate and grill the meat. Taco King's version is the most flavorful of the three restaurants, clearly tasting of chilis, garlic, and fruit.
Taco King's carnitas tacos also proffer deep pork savor, and occasional crispy bits. Carnitas rank as one of my favorites among taco fillings, but of the trio of restaurants, only Taco King offers it, perhaps due to the difficulty of its preparation. Much as with a French confit, chunks of highly seasoned pork are submerged in a cauldron of lard and gently simmered until tender. The cooking process continues, frying the chunks to produce crusty exteriors and meltingly tender interiors. For
reasons of economy and customer preference, many places in this country don't use this prolonged method, instead braising and shredding the pork, and sometimes finishing it with a quick fry to give the meat its characteristic crispy edges. Taco King uses its own hybrid method, simmering the meat in oil rather than lard, but the result is still tasty.
Taco King also offers some fillings not listed on the other menus. Tongue is tender and intensely beefy. Lamb, though a bit dry, also rewards with equally concentrated flavor, and the tripa--intestines--brings hammy, livery, salty pleasure. Next to these options, the chopped grilled steak and fish tacos seem mundane, though they're completely serviceable. (I know intestines are scary, but, really, if you like beef, you owe it to yourself to try tongue.)
Tostadas--crispy corn tortillas topped with beans, cheese, lettuce, crema, and your choice of meat--offer another way to try these meats and among this trio of eateries are available only at Taco King. They are delicious eaten in house but become soggy carried home. The salsas that accompany the tacos and tostadas are nicely made--the red one earthy, slightly smoky and piquant, the tomatillo one fresh and flavorful, not hot on the first visit, quite spicy on the second.
For carryout, the glorious Mexican sandwiches called tortas present a better choice. The tortas I've eaten in Mexico feature a crusty roll with the insides removed to better stuff it with beans, avocado, pickled jalapenos, tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise, crema, and the meats and cheeses of my choice. All three of these places substitute a soft telera roll, which doesn't offer the desirable crisp contrast to the abundant and sloppy filling and which, frankly, is just too much bread. That said, the roll is not a deal breaker, and a single sandwich--huge at all three places--can serve two appetites, accompanied by a side or two.
Taco King also produces two types of tamales. The Mexican version is the typical dense masa steamed in a corn husk, but here it's overly heavy with little filling, a very poor substitute for the area's best--and least expensive--incarnation at the Dos Hermanos store in Ypsilanti. However, the Central American tamale, wrapped in a banana leaf, is incredibly delicious, light, almost fluffy, with generous filling, its flavor seeping throughout the dough. Neither my dinner companions nor I wanted to give up this tamale.
Burritos, quesadillas, and breakfast items round out Taco King's menu. For dessert, you can get pastries, flan, or tres leches cake from Chilango's Bakery in Detroit. Eating at the restaurant was a little awkward in this summer's heat--it has no air conditioning--and the retail setting may be a bit stark for some. Still, it reminded me of the backwaters of rural Mexico--desultory steamy afternoons brightened by the unparalleled mix of meat, corn, and chili.
With harlequin booths and colorfully painted walls, Tmaz Taqueria, owned by Cesar Hervert, presents a more cheerful atmosphere. Earlier this year, Hervert explained to Marketplace Changes that tmaz is his abbreviation of the word temazcal, "a traditional Mexican sweat lodge used to purify the body, heal the sick, and help women give birth," as Tony McReynolds wrote. "Hervert loves the spiritual aspect and wanted to bring that connotation to his restaurant."
However, none of Tmaz's tacos excelled in the way Taco King's did. Of their "standard" tacos, barbacoa--shredded, oven-braised beef rather than the pit-cooked lamb or goat I'd eaten in Mexico--is tasty but not exceptional, as are their versions of tongue, marinated pork, and chicken with chipotle peppers. The potato with rajas--roasted poblano pepper strips--needs salsa, but their red one tastes rather bitter, the tomatillo one watery. The best of the standard tacos is the campechano--grilled steak mixed with chorizo.
On the day I tasted their specialty tacos, none of them delighted, with the camaron a la diabla (shrimp, devil-style) too mild, the pescado a la parilla (grilled fish) too old, and the cochinita pibil (Yucatan achiote-marinated, pit-roasted pork) too dry and tough. They were consistently out of the one I really wanted to try--chicharron con Tmaz, ranchero or pork rinds with Tmaz ranchero sauce.
But Tmaz does shine--really shine--in a couple of areas. Their guacamole is exceptional and absolutely delicious. Freshly made to order--unlike Taco King and Chela's--the avocado is left chunky, not pureed, and dotted with onion and pickled jalapenos. They also offer a side of soupy charro beans, not a dish I've seen often north of the border. Pinto beans cooked with lots of bacon, chunks of pork--in this case, frankfurter--and tomato, it makes a perfect meal with the guacamole and a stack of tortillas, washed down with one of their intriguing array of aguas, or fruit drinks.
Tmaz is a dual business--a panaderia or bakery as well as a taqueria. Its ample tortas feature house-made rolls, and a display case holds numerous Mexican pastries.
Over a series of visits, the best taco I tasted at Chela's, owned by Adrian and Lori Iraola, once more proved to be the campechano. The chipotle chicken, made with thighs, is also juicy and flavorful. Barbacoa again features beef, disappointing some but not others. The potato with chili poblano seems to have lost the chili, and the taco al pastor satisfies if not thrills.
I really enjoyed the tacos' pickled vegetable garnish but found the accompanying red salsa rather harsh, the tomatillo one thin. As at all three places, Chela's torta is stuffed full, providing sufficient protein for two. Of their tamales, we tried two different savory ones--red chicken and cheese with chilis--which we couldn't differentiate since the red sauce of both fillings provided the only flavor and texture. (They seemed to be perpetually out of the green pork tamale.) The pineapple dessert tamale is nice, but a bit more fruit would vastly improve its dense nature.
Again, the sides shine, though not consistently with the guacamole. Despite being pureed, one day it was fresh and flavorful, another day stale and funky. (Avocado really doesn't hold long once cut, much less pureed.) Black beans, however, are perfectly cooked and nicely seasoned, and cactus salad--like pico de gallo with strips of nopales added--provides a fun way, along with a full side of pickled vegetables, to eat your vitamins and minerals.
As you can probably tell, my ideal taqueria would be a blend of the trio, combining Tmaz's guacamole, charro beans, and aguas with Chela's black beans, pickled vegetables, and cactus salad to garnish Taco King's tostados, tamales, tacos, and salsas. Fortunately, we live in a mobile society with takeout clamshells and personal refrigerators stocked with cold beer. I can take the long way home, looping around the city to hit all three restaurants, and serve my perfect Mexican meal at my own table.
2231 W. Liberty
Daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Tacos, tamales, tostadas, quesadillas, burritos, tortas: $1.50-$6.50; breakfast (served all day): $5.99-$6.99; sides: $1.50-$4.99
Tmaz Taqueria and Panaderia
Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-12 midnight, Sun. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Tacos, tortas: $1.70-$7.50; breakfast (served all day): $4.99-$5.50; sides: $2-$5.95
693 S. Maple Road
Mon.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Tacos, quesadillas, tortas, tamales: $1.75-$7; breakfast items (served on weekends): $4-$5; sides: $1-$5
[Originally published in September, 2012.]
On September 30, 2012, Garin wrote:
I have been reading with great interest your stories on the Taco King, which has become my family's favorite taqueria! A couple of times the Observer has implied that the decor of the restaurant is lacking. Briefly Noted calls the decor "utilitarian" but I have to point out that for the last month my 9 year old son Archer and I have covered the walls of the seating area with an exhibition of colorful photos we have taken in Mexico. The decor has greatly changed
in the last month and you guys should stop by and take a look!