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Drive-thru aromatherapy

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Colorado Springs' choice of outstanding drive-thru Mexican joints just got better. In fact, I'd argue that the arrival of Taco Express will make the generic, soft taco wrapped in a thick, gummy, store-bought flour tortilla a thing of the past. Not only are the choices abundant at this tiny new eatery, but the quality is exceptional and the price will have you feeding the whole family there several times a week. And with 24-hour service, a quick drive to the corner of Centennial Blvd. and Garden of the Gods Road from any point in the city begins to sound like a mere midnight stroll.

I found out about the place from my hairdresser, Dakota, who came back from break last Saturday smelling of cilantro and onions. As he combed and conditioned, I sniffed. "What'd you have for lunch?" I asked. "A grilled chicken taco," he said, "from the new place up the street." Look for the flapping plastic flags, he told me, and as soon as I exited the parking lot, I started looking.

Taco Express is tiny -- altogether about as big as a Rockrimmon living room minus the vaulted cathedral ceiling. And it's red -- red like a carnival, like the pungent sauce that smothers its enchiladas. You can pull your car up to speakers and windows on either side of the building, but think before you pull up: Do you have a passenger to negotiate the drive-through if you pull up to the left? Is your car a stick shift? Are you wearing pants or a tight skirt -- an important distinction if you have to hop over to the right-side bucket seat, should you be driving and eating solo? If you object altogether to idling your automobile in a line-up of cars, you can park and walk up to the front window of Taco Express and eat at one of the sidewalk picnic tables.

On my first visit, I ordered what Dakota recommended via aromatherapy. And I ordered something called a torta because I didn't know what it was. On both counts, I was delighted. The grilled chicken taco came on a lightly grilled and warmed, firm corn tortilla, and was piled with lettuce, onions and tomato, sprinkled with fresh cilantro and smeared with good guacamole. Seriously a midday meal in itself, it cost $1.95. Other taco choices include beef, carne asada, fish, carnitas, adovada and lengua -- a mystery ingredient to this gringo which I plan to try on an upcoming visit.

The torta turned out to be a sandwich on a soft, split potato roll, grilled to crusty perfection. I chose carnitas, excellent shredded barbecued beef, topped with all the same aforementioned accoutrements. At $2.49, it's better tasting and more filling than any hamburger in town.

I returned to Taco Express two days later. The number 6, burro (sic) and enchilada combination plate, turned out to be so huge I could barely eat half of it. A massive burrito, dripping with saucy shredded beef, green peppers and grilled onions, completely hid from view the cheese enchilada. I located it by sniffing out the flavorful red sauce. Beans and rice were beside the point, but were good -- the beans cooked in lard and topped with melted white cheese. The whole thing cost $4.75.

Other things you should know about Taco Express: On both visits, I noticed that the walk-up customers were largely Spanish speaking, as are the servers and the cook. The menu is enormous and includes a wide variety of breakfast plates and burritos priced from $2.40 to $3.50. There's a side order of carne asada chips with guacamole -- a big plate piled high with aromatic chunks of grilled, marinated beef and topped with melted cheese -- that could feed an entire soccer team for $3.50.

Bottom line -- for flavor, convenience, authenticity and value, this place is a gem.

One more story: As I sat in the drive-thru on my second visit, contemplating how I was going to hop over to the passenger seat without embarrassing myself, I watched a black dog perched high atop the wheel well of the pick-up truck in front of my Dodge. His ears perked up when he heard his owner's order repeated over the loud speaker; then, as we edged forward, he picked up the spicy aroma wafting out of the sliding window. He moved forward, toward the cab and began to whine as the smell grew stronger, licking his chops and prancing nervously. When the truck reached the window, he edged dangerously far forward, then literally flipped into the passenger seat window just as his owner grabbed his sack of food.

I watched them drive away, the dog unceremoniously licking his owner's face, excitedly nudging the bag on his lap.

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