Small, out-of-the-way eateries, with an ethnic flavor, are usually found within the boundaries of a neighborhood with a particular ethnic makeup. This seems to be especially true of some of Salt Lake's better-known Mexican restaurants - La Frontera, Cafe Sylvestre, Cordova's Rancho and the sorely missed La Morena Cafe at the Guadalupe Center. Each is either located or was started on the city's west side.
As the word-of-mouth gets around, these little places are discovered. As their popularity grows, the restaurant's boundaries quickly evaporate. The magnetic pull of Mexican food is powerful. It brings together a cross-section of customers who enjoy this colorful and lively cuisine.V.J. Taco's is one such small westside eatery that has the promise and appeal of some of the area's more well-known Mexican restaurants. It is very small, seating no more than 14 people in little booths along the wall of its clean and compact interior. The cook works just across the counter, mashing refritos that bubble in large pots and grilling thin slices of flank steak with quiet concentration.
During busy lunch hours, service can be a bit slow, but the wait is worth it. And the overall experience at V.J. Taco's is more than its locale and hip-pocket size. The menu features Tijuana and Jaliscanian-style tacos. I can only describe these as a pleasant and appetizing change of pace from the predictability and often pablum-like consistency that plagues some Mexican restaurants. Nor are there any sequentially numbered combination plates, ground beef or plates covered with sauces that obscure the texture, crunch and various seasonings.
The "V.J. Special" ($3.59) is three tacos with grilled, shredded beef tucked in soft, warm corn tortillas and topped with guacamole and Charro beans. Customers have three choices of salsas on the table: chunks of fresh tomato, onion, cilantro and mild green chile; red chile; or green chiles and tomatillo salsa. Each has a distinctive flavor and range from hot to mild. It was fun to sample all three and pick out the one that best fit our tastes.
Another item we enjoyed was the El Gallito ($3.29), chunks of sauteed chicken, seasoned with mild red chile powder, folded into corn tortillas and served with shredded lettuce, tomato, guacamole and sour cream. With the cheese enchilladas ($3.75), as well as the cheese tostada ($1.65), the flavor was enhanced by the use of a crumbly and earthy farmer's cheese. It has some of the richness associated with goat cheese, though it is not nearly as strong. It definitely has more character than some of the conventional or bland cheeses often used.
Other regularly offered specialties include Taco's al Pastor ($3.59), pork steak with lettuce and beans; Macho Alegre ($3.59), barbecued beef with onions, cilantro and lemon wedges; Chile Relleno ($3.25); Flautas ($2.89); sandwiches on Bolillos bread; and burritos ($2.50), with choices of chile verde, chile Colorado or chorizo.
While small, V.J. Taco's has enough variety and special qualities with each of its selections to add to any Mexican aficionado's appreciation of Southwestern cuisine.
Rating: * * * *
V.J. Taco's, 1273 W. Fifth North, 355-2640. Open daily from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Cash or checks with guarantee card. Take-out orders available.