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A tale of two tacos

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I admit I don't know much about Mexican food. My early experiences were with Taco Bell, an injustice to the cuisine if ever there was one. It turned me off for about 20 years. Then I moved out West.

Needless to say, I've developed a new appreciation. With our ever-evolving restaurant scene, however, some of my favorite Mexican joints have disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared. At times this disturbs me; I like accountability and good food. But then, it also forces me to seek out the new.

I noticed Monica's Taco Shop while sitting in a line of traffic on Fillmore. I probably would have noticed it even if I wasn't sitting in traffic though, as the bright red sign which reads, "Monica's Taco Shop, home of real Mexican food and the real taco" is hard to miss.

My first trip to Monica's was via the drive-thru. I ordered a bean burrito, counting on it to be more of a snack than a meal and something I could eat on the run. I was wrong. There would be no eating and driving at the same time, and I needed three hands for the burrito. My curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know more about Monica's.

On my second visit to Monica's, I ventured inside. It was noon and there was a pretty long line of people waiting to place their orders at the counter. The line moved quickly though; every order was yelled out and then appeared within five or six minutes.

This time I went with the chicken enchilada combination plate, which means it includes rice and beans. The chicken was tender, tasty and reflected that aroma of garlic and onions I smelled as I entered the place. Again, two meals in one. Even the two accompanying flour tortillas were huge -- the size of those giant, Brawny paper towel squares at least. Way bigger than my face, for sure. The bottom line is, Monica's serves up huge portions of food. Huge, tasty portions of food.

On my third trip back, I tried the chiles rellenos, a tough dish to pull off. These were pretty good, though in need of more heat. This is when I tried the green chile and red hot sauce. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being water and 10 being actual fire, the green is about a 4.5. Very flavorful, but little scorch. The red sauce is its own story, tipping the scale at about a 9. If you like hot, real hot, you'll love this sauce.

Hopefully Monica's will stick around for a while. Even though it's in a building which was probably once a Hardee's or an Arby's, they've done some nice work on the inside and it's got that down-home aura.

Speaking of down-home, Mi Rancho Taqueria is another place I noticed while sitting in traffic.

Mi Rancho Taqueria is not as flashy as Monica's. In fact, it is a teeny tiny place out by the Citadel Mall, facing Galley Road. It's about as hole in the wall, family owned and operated as things get, and I wasn't even sure they were open when I first walked in. There were no lights on and only two tables; one inside and one outside.

As I was pondering this, out walked a small woman with a bright smile who took my order. Peering out from the back, presumably in the kitchen and the one doing most of the cooking, was an older, more stern looking woman.

I decided to sit outside and watch the traffic fly by on Galley, wondering if the person who designed half of the buildings in the area actually went to architecture school. Again, my thoughts were interrupted as a ten-year-old came outside and brought me napkins, silverware, water and various sauces. Five minutes later, he was back with my food. I'd ordered a chicken plate, which came with the usuals -- beans, rice and tortillas.

To say it was outstanding would be an understatement. I felt like I had just been privileged to my very own home-cooked meal. I didn't even try the accompanying sauces. I just wolfed it down, enjoying every morsel of flavor in the process.

At the end of the meal, the ten-year-old cleared my table. "How was it?" he asked.

"It was excellent," I enthusiastically replied.

He just looked at me, smiled and said, "Rad." Then he walked back inside.

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