Food & Drink » Dining Reviews

Happy Belly Tacos stands out with quality fillings and bangin’ beans

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The goofy grinning pig foretells good late-night bites. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • The goofy grinning pig foretells good late-night bites.
Troy Burke came out of the Rooster’s House of Ramen kitchen swinging. From day one, his offerings as chef at newly opened Happy Belly Tacos — the second installment of chef/owner Mark Henry’s Elevated Carnivore Group — have impressed. The spot’s an unpretentious counter-service joint, painted in a bright Southwestern palette, tucked away behind the vacant former Denny’s, in the hinterlands between downtown and the Westside. If anything can bring life to this less-than-happening block, Happy Belly’s bright fare will.

The calamari might be the spot’s standout taco, delicately coated and crisp-fried strips of squid that stand up respectably to a sweet chile sauce; it’s a larger taco than the rest, too. The potato taco comes full of spicy little starch cubes, all golden-brown delicious. Also vegetarian-friendly, the squash fajita taco’s tender, packed with thin-sliced calabaza squash and pepper strips, delightfully roasty-toasty.

Carnivores can of course expect richly spiced pork, with a lovely, yielding chew in the taco al pastor. And while big chunks of buche — pork stomach — have a notable organ meat tang, they also taste powerfully meaty and rich. We suggest adding a little of the house hot sauce (which Henry has also deployed at Rooster’s) from the salsa bar: a mix of seven peppers, vinegar and salt. It mellows the buche’s flavor, providing a bright, sharp counterpoint. Mildly spiced salsa verde, house salsa and pico de gallo also do well.
Location Details Happy Belly Tacos
125 N. Spruce St.
West side
Colorado Springs, CO
471-4528
11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; to 2 a.m., Friday-Saturday
Mexican/Tex-Mex/Southwestern

Though the tacos show strong, and the lunch four-for-$12 plate can be a cost-saver when most run $3.25 to $5 solo, diners can do better for their dollar. Happy Belly’s turning wicked good tortas ($5) on house bolillo rolls, made by former Broadmoor baker Jeff Webb, who bakes for Rooster’s too. We try the pollo asada torta, mostly meat with a bright, pepper-forward seasoning that’s a treat. Tostadas come piled with beans, lettuce, meat and cheese — carne asada, for us, cut super-thin with a pleasant texture and meaty taste.

The tostadas’ borracho beans stand out, not just for porky richness but for the subtle but notable enhancement from the beer used to make them — a mix of Montucky Cold Snack and Avery Brewing Company’s El Gose lime gose. Try them also in the big-ass bean and cheese burrito, a glorious gut bomb. Order it to-go for a fortifying wrap, as the filling’s pretty wet.

Happy Belly’s burritos ($7.50 to $11.25) hold our attention. We dig them as a vehicle for the spot’s delicious barbacoa, which bears pepper depth and sings against beans and rice. Though the carnitas fare less well — they’re delightfully porky with little crisp bits for textural delight, but the beans and rice here overwhelm their flavor. Go for a torta or taco as a superior vessel for this pork.

For sides, the elote’s a full cob of corn slathered with mayo, cotija cheese and a secret neon-red spice blend that Henry refuses to discuss in detail. Just know that it’s mildly citric and spicy, with a pleasant chile flavor that’s not very earthy. My money’s on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Tajín somewhere in the mix.

Since our review visits, the spot’s rolled out more menu items, with yet more in the works, Henry tells us. If his and Burke’s successes so far are any indicator, Happy Belly’s only getting started.

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