Sunday, April 19, 2009

Los Tarascos

Los Tarascos is located in North Fort Collins at 626 South College Avenue and is owned by the Caballero Family.

She said...By the time we arrived at Los Tarascos, I was tired and hungry. A combination sure to make me cranky and not easy to please. The fact that the parking anywhere north of Laurel Street in Fort Collins is non-existent wasn't much help. We parked less than a block away after circling the restaurant like vultures, just waiting for a parking spot to open up. Tired, hungry, wet from the unrelenting drizzle, and pissy about the crappy downtown parking - I'm surprised my companions put up with me. Then we opened the doors to Los Tarascos.

What a welcome surprise. All of my negative energy immediately dissipated as I walked through the doors into a place that I didn't know existed in Fort Collins. The interior reminded me vaguely of the missions in Santa Fe, but much less run down and depressing. It was clean, well-kept and vibrant, but not gaudy. There is a much understated elegance in the decor. Many Mexican food places try too hard with the decor and end up being garish. Los Tarascos is not such a place.

We were seated immediately and given freshly-made corn tortillas. Yum. The only place I'd ever eaten fresh corn tortillas was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and these tortillas conjured memories of buying tortillas from the Tortilleria and making one of the best meals of my life. The menu was a bit difficult to read, the background being a bit too dark in the intimate lighting. Even with the black font surrounded by white, it was difficult to read. After turning the menu this way and that, I finally decided on the Shredded Beef burrito with green sauce and a strawberry Margarita. My companions ordered a Shredded Beef burrito without sauce and the Enchiladas Tricolor.

I noticed a table tent that stated the limit of two Margaritas and after my first drink of the unbelievably smooth drink, I could understand how any more than two could get someone in trouble. The recipe is a typical Margarita recipe; triple sec, sweet & sour, and tequila. The difference is in the quality of ingredients they use. Rather than just any old cheap tequila, they use only 100% blue agave tequila; a smooth, sipping tequila, which makes all the difference in the world.

When our drinks were delivered, our lovely waitress, Gabriela, pointed the way to the free salsa bar, with salsas ranging from mild to very hot. We sampled five of their salsas: avacado salsa (mild), chile de arbol (very hot), cilantro (hot), habanero (very hot), and molcahete salsa (hot), which I mixed with the chile de arbol. I enjoyed all of them, though I found the habanero a bit too smokey and with a flavor I couldn't place. I found myself returning repeatedly to the chile de arbol; I could have poured it in a jar and taken it home with me. Really, the only thing missing were chips. We gobbled down the fresh tortillas and then had nothing else to eat our salsa with. When we did ask for chips, they were promptly brought to the table, were warm and were obviously made from their corn tortillas.

The menu had described the burrito as being wrapped in a large flour tortilla with beans and pico de gallo, but it still did not prepare me for the size of the meal I was presented with. A full one-third of the twelve-inch oval plate was covered by the burrito, which was flanked by beans and rice, and covered with a green sauce. Green sauce is the correct description for the smothering of the burrito. When I read it in the menu, I assumed they meant green chili, but they really did mean green sauce, which was absolutely delightful. The burrito was lightly garnished with lettuce and a slice of tomato, not buried under handfuls of lettuce to make the food appear larger than actual size. The beans to one side were mashed to perfection and lightly topped with a white cheese; on the other side of the burrito was light rice that reminded me of my Grandmother's Mexican Wedding Rice - the only thing missing were peas and the over-cooked stickiness of her rice.

My first bite of the burrito was heaven. The green sauce had good flavor and a little bit of spiciness, but wasn't overwhelming, and melded well with the shredded beef, beans and pico de gallo. I was surprised by the pico de gallo inside the burrito, as most restaurants use it as a garnish rather than incorporating it into the dish. Since I really, really dislike tomatoes, the pico wasn't necessarily a pleasant surprise. I was more careful with my subsequent bites to pick the tomatoes out of the burrito; once that was accomplished I relished every bite, right up until I hit full. And then I kept eating, knowing that every bite would make me more and more miserable, but I just couldn't stop - it was that good. Finally, about half-way through this monsterous burrito, I had to throw in the towel. Briefly. I still couldn't stop, so I tore open the tortilla and picked out the remaining shredded beef and used some of the still-warm chips to scoop up what was left of the beans. Thank goodness for the waitress, who stopped by and was gracious enough to get the plate out of my way before I exploded.

Really, the only complaint my party had was that one of my companions ordered the plain (not smothered) Shredded Beef burrito, but received the Shredded Chicken burrito. When I offered to send it back, she refused, as the Shredded Chicken was, apparently, very good too. She really, really enjoyed the rice, eating what was left of mine as well as all of hers. I'm pretty sure she ate her weight in food and given how picky an eater she can be, that speaks loads about the quality of food served.

The service, other than the mix-up with my companion's meal, was excellent. The waitress was attentive, but did not hover, and pleasant. She was also impeccably clean, all of the wait staff were. I am amazed at how hard the wait staff works and still manages to avoid all of the food stains on their clothes. I can tell you, that's something that I never managed to avoid in all of the years I waited tables. She was also obviously trained the same way I was - never to pass a table without picking something up. What a pleasant surprise to see tables pre-bussed. She was so good, in fact, that I left her a 30% tip, which is unheard of (or maybe it was that super-smooth Strawberry Margarita).

Los Tarascos is a place that I look forward to returning often. In fact, my stomach's getting geared up to try their chicken and beef rellenos. Today, perhaps.

He said...To me there are three things that make a restaurant successful in providing an excellent and enjoyable dining experience. Firstly, it is all about the food. Secondly, the place must offer great service from the initial greeting to the "thank you for coming" exit. Lastly, the dining rooms ambiance must be fitting and comfortable. Los Tarascos took all three of these aspects and created one of the most memorable dining experiences I've had in recent memory.

Let me start with my meal...I ordered the Tricolor Enchiladas which had a choice of four different fillings, shredded beef, chicken, cheese or mushroom, and were served with rice and beans. I chose the shredded beef. Three shredded beef enchiladas are served each adorning its own sauce; one traditional red enchilada sauce, one green sauce (verde), and one in the house special Tarasco sauce. Each of the three enchiladas were delicious with each sauce creating three completely different sensations on my palate. The red sauce was tangy and a little smokey with a nicely balanced spiciness. The green sauce had a wonderfully bright, fresh flavor and added a little more heat than the red. The Tarasco sauce was an amazingly rich cream based sauce that offered such beautiful texture and balance to the dish as a whole. I was skeptical in the beginning that the flavors wouldn't co-mingle very well, but neither sauce overepowered the others. They actually blended harmoniously together creating an unforgettable meal.

On to the service...Upon entering Tarascos the place was buzzing with activity. We were greated promptly by the hostess and taken to our seat. Drink orders were taken quickly and some fresh, complimentary corn tortillas were delivered shortly thereafter. Our waitress, Gabriela, arrived with our drinks and directed us to the salsa bar so we could enjoy our hot corn tortillas with a variety of homemade salsas. Gabriela was everything I look for in a waitperson; polite, pleasant, attentive without being over bearing and most importantly she was having fun doing what she does. When we got up to leave we were given the "thanks for coming" line, which I always appreciate, a true sign of hospitality.

The ambiance...I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped into Los Tarascos by the wonderful and tasteful decor. It was as if I had stumbled into an 1800's southwest spanish mission or quaint Mexico villa. No gaudy colors or over used stereotypical paintings covering the walls, just nice comforting earthy tones and playful touches like the wood beamed waiting area. A real success in my mind on keeping it simple yet fun.

I loved my experience at Los Tarascos and my only real complaint concerned the menu. I am not a fan of putting pictures of plated food on menus and the writing was somewhat hard to read in the dim lighting. That small gripe certainly did not put a damper on my evening there and I am looking forward to dining with them in the near future, frequently.

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