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Mexican Madness

Tacqueria taste test leaves our taste buds tuckered out

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You're hungry. In fact, you're so far beyond hungry that the term starving doesn't even do it justice. You've got a gaping empty chasm where your stomach used to be, so you need something fast and filling. Unless Mom lives around the corner, or someone else loves you enough to feed you for free, you need something reasonably priced. What to do?

Mexican take-out is your answer. There are new spots opening around town practically every other week, so either take your chances on someplace new, or check out one of the tried-and-true joints we taste-tested for you. We sampled the take-out wares of Mi Rancho, Chipotle's, Albertacos, La Casita, Taco Express and Monica's. One warning: Unless you have a large group of famished friends, do not attempt to eat three menu items from each of six Mexican restaurants in one sitting. Four women and three teenage boys didn't even make a visible dent in all the food we had.

The fastest and the cheapest food is, of course, chips and salsa. The clear and obvious winner was La Casita, where the small bag of chips is huge ($1.75), the chips are freshly fried, and you have six different salsas to choose from, all excruciatingly fresh, and ranging from mild to tongue-blistering. The worst example came from Mi Rancho, where the salsa tasted of canned tomato paste and had a dry texture, if that's at all possible. The chips are just round chips straight out of a bag ($2.98). If this were an island, these chips would be voted off first.

Chipotle's scored well, although they are stingy with the freshly fried but heavily salted chips (95, 55 for extra salsa). But the three different salsas save them. The hot has a very good, earthy chile flavor; the mild is a pleasant blend of tomatoes, onions and cilantro; and the medium has crisp, tender corn with green pepper, cilantro and onion.

Monica's, Albertacos and Taco Express all give you a Styrofoam tray packed with chips topped with fresh pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro). This is great if you eat them right away, but if you let them sit they'll get soggy. Albertacos has only one sauce, and it's very hot, full of great chipotle flavor, leaving one tester to exclaim, "My tonsils are burning!" And of the three, Albertacos has the better chips ($1). At Monica's the chips needed more salt, and the green salsa was gelatinous, with a strange sweet/tart flavor that seemed like it was trying to disguise the natural tartness of tomatillas. But Monica's gets three stars for the marinated sliced carrots, peppers and onions, a free sidedish which occupies a small niche on the condiment table. Hot but not killer, these are an awesome way to sneak some vitamins into your diet. And as far as Taco Express, just trust us and don't order the chips and salsa ($1.50) if you're taking them out. It's not worth your time or money.

Next we waded through a sea of tacos, the good, the bad and the indifferent. Monica's gets three stars for their enormous, inexpensive tacos ($1.60). Ours was filled with moist, shredded beef, overflowing with lettuce and cheese, in a great corn-tasting tortilla that hadn't lost its crunch. (We're pretty sure these were fried in lard, but they tasted so good we didn't care.) The Albertacos taco ($1.70) was pretty similar, except the meat was drier. We also tried their carne asada taco, which is a bland meat-lover's dream. Tons of what tasted like roast beef overwhelmed the taco shell, along with guacamole and pico de gallo. The Taco Express carnitas taco ($2.07) was good but not outstanding, filled with shredded pork, lettuce and cheese in a crispy, greasy-in-a-good-way corn shell.

Chipotle's has some of the best-tasting tacos. The steak tacos are full of lean, tender chunks of really flavorful, smoky meat. You get to choose which toppings you get on top of the meat, but pay close attention. The people behind the counter will assume that you've been there before and they don't make much effort to speak up. Also, you can only get tacos in orders of four, not singly (four for $4.85). Mi Rancho has the protein-packed taco ($1.98, 60 extra for cheese), full of shredded meat, tons of pinto beans and cheese, in double corn tortillas. The adobo sauce is hot, as in your nose will run, your forehead will sweat and your fillings may melt, but man, is it ever tasty. There's also a muddy-looking sauce that you can get, but ignore it. When it came to La Casita, we were united in our opinion that everyone loves the bean and cheese for 94, but the beef, also only 94, is gray and questionable. Stick with the bean and cheese.

We tortured ourselves further with chicken burritos. Most of them are enormous, obviously meant to be eaten by people involved in long hours of hard physical labor. Either that, or plan on sharing or eating them at a second meal, possibly even a third.

"Round, firm and fully packed" is how one taster rated the Taco Express burrito ($2.49). It was filled with tender, moist, flavorful chicken and some guacamole, very tightly rolled so it wouldn't be too sloppy to eat (or pass around a table). They also have a Chile Rellenos Burrito ($2.92), where they take a really good roasted chile, fill it with cheese, then wrap it in a tortilla with lots of rice. Very tasty. Mi Rancho once again weighed in with lots of pinto beans, where the chicken just seemed to add a little flavor ($2.98, 60 extra for cheese). The tortilla seemed softer, wimpier, making the whole burrito less structurally sound. The Chipotle's burrito ($4.65) was enormously heavy, filled with black beans (a nice, vegetarian change from the pinto beans) and whatever else you request. We had ours with the hot salsa, and agreed that the flavor just jumps out at you.

The La Casita burrito ($1.45) was deemed to taste like cafeteria chicken. It was OK, rather bland. Monica's turned out another monstrously gigantic burrito (a great value at $2.40), which was still warm after sitting through this very long taste test. The interior was moist but not runny, the chicken had excellent flavor, and the tortilla gave awesome structural integrity. The steak burrito is really good, too, with good tasting beef and guacamole. The Albertacos burrito ($2.20) was similarly well packed, with tight corners that allowed no leakage. (You could eat these in the car!) Very juicy, with some kind of sauce that squirts out when you bite into it. The chicken is tender and tasty, but could be trimmed a little better.

So while we won't be able to look at Mexican food for at least a month, you'll be able to go out and enjoy all your favorites with the confidence of knowing what to order where.

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