Flavor: Local and organic in Mexican garb
Ambiance: Energized lunch counter
A passel of volunteer firefighters were milling about Main Street in Marshall on a recent Thursday night. Having just wound up a departmental meeting, the guys were stubbing out cigarettes and swapping holiday plans before heading home. It was the sort of “Norman Rockwell, grab your paintbrush” scene that’s likely unfolded many times in the seat of Madison County, and one that may soon be rewritten. Thanks to French Broad Taqueria, a zippy new taco joint smack dab in the center of town, Marshall’s bravest now have the option of reconvening over plates of organic chicken dabbed with roasted-poblano cream and carne asada spritzed with lime.
As any local Realtor can tell you, Madison County is surging, and French Broad Taqueria is proof that the area’s finding its culinary legs. The stealthily ethical eatery, which has quietly made commitments to local products and recycling a cornerstone of its business plan, is serving up some eye-openingly delicious new-wave tacos. But it’s hard to know whether to cheer this quirky spot or bemoan its inevitable popularity, which will surely speed the impending gentrification of this tiny mountain town.
I’m guessing Marshall’s residents harbor no such academic qualms and probably feel they hit the piñata with French Broad’s arrival this fall. Their reception has been so enthusiastic that diners who wait until suppertime to visit the taqueria sometimes have to contend with a carcass of the menu, customers having hours before wiped the specials board clean. The 12-seat restaurant usually has to put at least three cooks in its kitchen at lunch, with one perpetually stationed at the comal, heating endless stacks of corn and flour tortillas.
While the seating area is small, the open kitchen is gargantuan, since the facility formerly housed a catering operation. Still, the owners have managed to inject plenty of Mexicanesque charm into the oddly partitioned space. From the crimped-metal walls to the ceramic-tiled tables, the interior sounds all the right South-of-the-Border notes without teetering into kitsch.
But the focus is rightly on the food at this counter-service taqueria. The refreshingly concise menu features eight tacos, two soups, four sides and three dips, with the most expensive item—a housemade guacamole—ringing up at just $3.75.
It’s a worthwhile splurge. The guacamole is a silky-smooth blend of avocado, cilantro and lime, undefiled by any gratuitous ingredients. The dip is adjusted seasonally, with tomatoes added to the mix in the summer. Either way, the guac is the perfect canvas on which to paint any of the many hot sauces French Broad keeps lined up on its counter.
French Broad doesn’t shirk from heat or spice, an approach that takes some cojones in a town that hasn’t heretofore been known for its cosmopolitan cuisine. The taqueria has made jalapenos the parsley of its pantry, liberally garnishing everything from fish tacos to vegetarian refried beans with rings of the slightly punchy pepper. The robust chipotle salsa that functions as the house dip is more smoke than fire, but even it would have enough bite to discomfort the Subway-goers who eye the banana-pepper section with alarm. Yet the kitchen always employs heat appropriately, using it to enhance—rather than eradicate—the fresh flavors of its showcased ingredients.
All of French Broad’s double-wrapped tacos are about four bites long, so it makes sense to order a sampling. Among the most popular is the fish taco, a joy-filled roll of lightly fried Sunburst Farms trout. The fat fish fingers are perked up by a citrusy aioli and bright-green jalapenos.
The pulled pork provided a similarly terrific base—so good, in fact, that I spent much of the following weekend ordering sliced, diced and chopped porks at every sort of restaurant, futilely trying to find a dish that replicated the supple succulence of French Broad’s rendition. But it lost points for its plummy barbecue sauce, a viscous concoction that would be better suited for masking the greasy blandness of subpar egg rolls. I liked the sprightly jalapeno-spiked coleslaw enough, however, to consider ordering another round.
We did go back for seconds on the veggie taco, a warm bundle of split, roasted sweet potatoes in their jackets and hunks of savory portabella mushrooms. French Broad is staunchly protective of its vegetarian customers, keeping all meat products out of their soups and sides of beans, rice and kale. While the rice is another reason to make a midday visit to the taqueria (a day’s worth of heating leaches all the tenderness from the parboiled grains the restaurant uses), the organic kale, bathed in lemon juice and garlic, is downright outstanding. Munching on a plateful feels something like raiding the vitamin cabinet, but with far tastier results.
To wash it all down, there’s nothing stronger than Mexican coke and Jarritos sodas on hand. Voters in Marshall last month overwhelmingly approved an ordinance allowing beer and wine sales, and French Broad is planning to start stocking both beverages soon. For now, there is non-alcoholic sangria in the cooler: “We’re getting people ready,” a staffer explained.
There’s also Mexican hot chocolate, a lovely match to the wiggly homemade flan or spongy churros offered for dessert.
Perhaps French Broad Taqueria will indeed be the ruin of Marshall, a town where the newspaper runs thank you notes from tourists. But, at the very least, it will be an especially delicious way to go.