Taco Loco – Loco?

No.  Asequible, sabroso, y  amigable?  Sin reserva.

By Tom Baker

After arriving in Dayton in the early ‘90s from Texas, it was clear that the Midwest was no Mexican food Mecca.  Disappointed, it would be almost a decade before I ended up in Chicago, where real Mexican food and I were reunited.  I was spoiled by the family run, “hole in the wall” type joints where you could get gorditas (real ones) and horchata, sometimes 24/7.  I had long missed the cuisine from my time in San Antonio, where you could watch the tortillas being made, then use them to scoop up the remaining beans and bits of steak from your plate.  Soon I would find myself back in Dayton, and I rekindled my search for something resembling the real deal.

It wasn’t until 2006 that Taco Loco opened in Riverside.  It seemed that there was hope blossoming amidst a field of fairly generic Mexican restaurants in the suburbs.  Pulling up for the first time, my spirits rose as it was clearly not another Midwestern Mexi-clone, but rather that homey, inviting sort of run down but mysteriously endearing “small and unpretentious place” I’d been waiting for all these years.

Taco Loco is indeed small and not at all fancy.  At lunch on weekdays you’ll find it full of people from area businesses, especially the base.  On weekends, it’s families and college students.  You’ll hear English and Spanish (as you should in any good taqueria as far as I’m concerned), and you’re surrounded by dramatic religious paintings, grey-green tile, and sea foam paint.  The staff is very friendly, and service is generally prompt even though there are usually only one or two people working both the dining room and the register.  It’s super casual – napkin dispensers on the tables, most everything is served on melamine or in plastic baskets, and you’re provided disposable cutlery.  It’s the food that really matters, and soon you’re stacking the empties on the end of the table not realizing how quickly you just ate.

I prefer Taco Loco when I eat in – my carry out experiences have been less satisfying – not because of service or quality issues per se, but rather because I think it’s best eaten fresh from the kitchen.  There are two types of tacos – “locos,” served with tomatoes, lettuce, and sour cream, or the traditional tacos served only with cilantro, onion, and lime.  They offer a variety of proteins ranging from the easy chicken and steak, to the more adventurous and road-less-traveled options of lengua (tongue), tripas (tripe), and mollejas (gizzard).  I opt for the more vibrant, simple, and traditional flavors of the latter, served with their suadero, a more flavorful cut of beef shoulder.  They also have chile relleno (cheese stuffed pepper) as an option for tacos if you’re looking for something meatless, but it was greasy and a bit disappointing, both in taco form as well as when presented as an entrée with beans and rice.  Vegetarians or those looking for seafood have some options as well, with mushrooms (sautéed in a great spicy sauce), shrimp, and fish on the menu – and you can of course leave the meat off altogether.

Taco Loco also offers quesadillas, burritos, sopes, tortas, a variety of entrees, and the less common huaraches (a huarache is actually a type of sandal, but here it refers to the long shape of the flat, fried masa base upon which you can place a variety of proteins).   You don’t see these everywhere, and it’s said that they originated in Mexico City and have found their way to only parts of the United States.  The tortas, a sandwich consisting of beans, onions, sour cream, lettuce, tomato, pickled jalapeno, avocado, and choice of protein, are also a solid option.

On weekends traditional soups like pozole (beef and hominy) and Menudo (beef stomach/tripe soup) are offered, but not during the week.  Everything is served with a mild tomatillo salsa and a spicier red salsa – I mix them in order to maximize flavor.  I would also recommend trying their guacamole to cool things off – this version is heavier on the onion, tomato, and lime and lighter on the avocado.  It’s tasty and refreshing with their chips, and also suitable for putting on most everything as a condiment.  You can wash everything down with a Mexican Coke, horchata (my personal favorite – rice water with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla), or a variety of jarritos fruit drinks.

It may not look like much but the proof is in the pozole – Taco Loco serves good food, more traditional than most, and you can easily get away with a happy, full stomach for under ten bucks.  Combine this with friendly service in a relaxed atmosphere, and you’ve got a crazy good spot for a taco or three.

Taco Loco is located at 5392 Burkhardt Road in Riverside and is open 7 days a week.  937-254-6645.

Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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