Mamacita’s

Flavor: Fresh Mexicali
Ambiance: Bright, funky and lively
Service: Friendly and prompt

The smiling face that more often than not greets customers from behind the counter of Mamacita’s, the lively little burrito joint on Biltmore Avenue, belongs to a man named James Hurt. James knows about all sorts of food, but it’s his knack for cooking meat that I recall with the most mouth-watering nostalgia from our years of working together at Salsa.

Early on in my stint at that flamboyantly funky Mexican/Caribbean “feeding trough” (a less than affectionate nickname among the kitchen staff, referring to the breakneck pace of business), James and I would set up the line together almost every morning for lunch service. I was usually half-awake and bleary-eyed, dragging about from too few hours of sleep. James was usually running on even less sleep that I, but he remained animated and regaled me with stories. Sparky and the Kid, he called us.

My moniker was bestowed for my tendency to forget things in the broiler until they were set aflame, and as for the Kid, well, the name just fit James. The Kid showed me how to cook meat until it gave up all resistance, quivering and falling from the bone into a moist, succulent pile. It was James, actually, who coaxed me from vegetarianism with a sumptuous pork roast, and I never looked back.

Now, James and his talents, along with those of a surprising number of other ex-Salsa recruits, can be found in the festive and generally packed little terra cotta- and canary-walled eatery, Mamacita’s, serving up tacos, burritos, quesadillas, “y mucho mas.” That roast pork that seduced me into the carnivorous world? It’s there, in a different incarnation – braised and simmered slowly in adobo sauce – but still just as luscious. In fact, preparing the dish takes so much time, James informed me, that he sometimes comes in on his day off, when the restaurant is closed, so he can labor over the giant roast.

The payoff of all this effort was evident in the pork taco that I sampled on a spring-like February afternoon. One of two specials I tasted that day, the taco was my favorite, causing me to wax poetic at the table – I might have whispered something about marriage to my lunch. I believe my Picky Companion rolled his eyes several times, but I was too enraptured to notice.

Anyway, the pork was so moist that it turned my tortillas into corn mush, which was just fine by me. I would have been just as enamored had the meat been served by itself in a plastic cup. The grilled pineapple on the top was a lovely touch, a nice, sweet/tart foil for the spicy, savory filling. The whole affair was further enhanced – at the suggestion of the person who presided over the vast array of toppings behind the counter – with fresh jalapeños and a little squirt of spicy Baja sauce.

The other special, a veggie burrito, was very good as well. Filled with savory sweet potato, kale, black beans and some very fresh-tasting, exceptionally creamy goat cheese, it was a fine, healthy vegetarian option. We chose to fill it with fresh cilantro, diced green chilies and chipotle salsa, one of the four varieties made fresh at Mamacita’s. As Picky Companion pointed out, it’s “hard to go wrong when you can pretty much build your own meal.”

I also ordered a salad, which was unbelievably huge, and had it topped it with olives, fresh pico de gallo and roasted red peppers. Next, I turned to my steak taco, which might possibly win the award for my favorite steak taco in town. No chewy skirt meat here; the beef was soft and succulent, and the chimichurri and cucumbers that were suggested as toppings proved to be a nice complement.

The fish tacos were also quite good. The Baja sauce was tasty, and the slaw was fresh and crisp. It was here that the Picky Companion uttered his solitary complaint: Mamacita’s is so busy during the lunch rush that it’s nearly impossible to fry the fish to order. As at many other busy taquerias, the fish is fried in batches to accommodate the onslaught of customers and held in a warmer like all the other meat. This affects the texture, and the tilapia pieces were slightly chewy. Whatever the case, the result was still satisfactory.

Whether you’re a meat aficionado or a vegetarian, Mamacita’s is a solid bet for a tasty, inexpensive meal. The food is fresh, the atmosphere is vibrant and inviting, and most important, you can be assured that everything is made with care. When I spoke to one of the Mamacita’s cooks after my visit, he, too, marveled over the Kid’s passion for the food. Indeed, it’s this kind of zeal than can turn an ordinary taco – and an everyday lunch – into “mucho mas.”

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