My taste for tacos was forged in Mexican-run taquerias. I want grill-smudged corn tortillas carrying well-marinated meats crisped on a griddle, backed up with fresh salsas, onions, cilantro, radishes and lime wedges. Those standards have made me one miserable taco eater for nearly 20 years.
I eventually had to drive an hour to Medina’s Monte Alban for my fix. I endured “best taco” arguments pitting Mighty Taco against Taco Bell much in the same way I handled a Florida friend raving about this great Buffalo wing place, and driving me to Hooters. I went mute. Better they do not know, I reasoned. Otherwise, there will be no escape from the pain.
That’s changed. In the past five years, Cantina Loco, Valle of Mexico, La Divina and Deep South Taco have started offering taqueria-style tacos. None of them are perfect venues. But Buffalo’s taco tide has turned.
Time for taco tough love, Buffalo. If you’ve never had a taco without shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, a crunchy shell or sour cream, you have never had a Mexican taco.
Deep South Taco, for one, does not play that way. It offers 11 varieties of Mexican taco, with fillings of pork, beef, chicken, fish and vegetables.
Some of the fillings are among Buffalo’s best. Operator Richard Hamilton knows what Mexican tacos are like, and has the skills to prepare them. The guajillo-chile-braised beef short rib in the costilla de res ($5) and the crispy braised pork belly in guajillo sauce in the panza ($4) are deeply flavored, spicy and satisfying. I have missed properly chile-braised meats. (Those prices are for a single taco, about 6 inches wide and heftier than the Mexican-style norm.)
A carne asada taco of crispy-tipped marinated steak chunks topped with char-flecked roasted tomato and serrano salsa also was successful. Dry meat was buoyed by what Deep South Taco calls the “luchador” treatment, wherein the taco is settled into a flour tortilla lined with guacamole or cheese sauce ($1.75 upcharge). The double-hulled taco upgraded one of Deep South’s already-large tacos to a light meal.
The same tasty-but-dry steak topped a Giant Nacho Platter ($12) that lived up to its name. A mountain of tortilla chips was layered across a tray with cheese sauce, cilantro, scallions, freshly diced tomato and sliced jalapeno dusted with cotija, a dry grated cheese that counts as the Parmesan of Mexico.
The nacho builder had adeptly layered chips with fixings to give most of the chips some flavor payload, which made up for the uneven application of Deep South Taco’s ruddy, Doritos-esque spice powder on the basic chips.
I tried pescado ($5), a fish taco with fried or grilled cod, chipotle mayonnaise and shredded cabbage, in both forms. The battered-and-fried version won over the scantily seasoned grilled version. It reminded me favorably of a fish fry, even down to a piece of fried fish bigger than it needed to be.
A potato number was a good reminder that tacos don’t have to be fleshy. The papas con rajas ($4), with potato, chile, onion, cilantro and cotija, was a symphony to Mexican home fries.
A small iron pan of queso chorizo ($8) was a heart-stopping success. It consisted of stringy melted cheese hiding roasted chile strips, topped with a neon-orange pool of sausage fat and a streusel of spicy, salty ground pork. Just the way I like it.
The fresh citrus jolt of the house margarita ($6) was refreshing, but the Revenge of the Luchador cocktail ($8), with whiskey, tequila and port, reminded me of cough syrup.
My biggest gripe is with the tortillas. They’re essential to a taco’s overall excellence, like the bread of a great sandwich. Deep South Taco’s tortillas are housemade, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The ones I tried were coarser and thicker than standard corn tortillas, but less corn-flavored, with a rubbery texture that brought to mind a jar lid gripper.
In a few cases, dishes went awry in other ways. The pollo pibil taco ($4) used an intoxicating, pungent cochinita pibil marinade of achiote, citrus and spices. But it was applied to stringy chicken breast, not the more supple, richer chicken thigh the menu advertised.
Instead of the lovely chorizo from the queso skillet, a chorizo taco ($5) came with room-temperature sliced link sausage, the meat not warm enough to melt the shredded chihuahua cheese. A tostada de hongos ($4) had another excellent vegetable topping, with saucy stewed mushrooms, chile strips, goat cheese and salsa. But the menu promised marinated greens and delivered chopped romaine lettuce, while the corn tostada foundation was stiff as cardboard, almost too tough to chew.
The flavors at Deep South Taco are enticing enough that odd tortillas and occasional uneven cooking haven’t held it back. The place has been plenty crowded, and Hamilton is opening a second location on Hertel Avenue in a few months.
Deep South Taco is a welcome addition to Buffalo’s downtown casual eats and drinks lineup, watching a game with friends or patio suncatching. I hope the tortillas improve.
Either way, the darkest days are over for cravers of Mexican tacos. There’s more downtown tacos coming, too. Finally, I can have “best taco” arguments without wanting to leave town.
Deep South Taco - 7 plates (out of 10)
Downtown joint eases taco deprivation, but tortillas leave room for improvement.
WHERE: 291 Ellicott St. (235-8464)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Dips and snacks, $5-$12; tacos, $3-$5.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.