Before I entered Urban Taco, I thought it was another Chipotle- or Freebirds-style establishment, fast Mexican food ordered at a counter. I made an assumption based on the name, which brings to mind an upscale Taco Bell. I admit, I made an assumption, and when I assume I make an ass out of myself.
It’s actually a swanky, modern Mexican restaurant with a few twists on traditional dishes. Urban Taco first opened in Dallas in 2007, and has since spread throughout that city. The San Antonio location at the Quarry — the first outside Dallas — opened late last year.
By all accounts, the Dallas locations are places to see and be seen — Yelp reviewers in Dallas warn about Entourage wannabes hitting on the stilettoed and Botoxed. The scene at San Antonio’s Urban Taco is very different. Maybe it’s San Antonio, or maybe the Quarry location has something to do with it. Either way our city’s Urban Taco is a far cry from its Dallas counterparts. Though lots of couples and adult groups dine here, I’ve seen an equal number of families and teenagers too. The staff encourages it; I even saw a waiter fashion a hat out of a napkin for a toddler to wear. The décor is modern and slightly industrial, with simple bare bulb lighting and dark wooden tables.
Tables get tiny bowls of complimentary chips with addictive chile lime salt. They need to use much bigger bowls though, because those chips disappear fast. Drinks include house-made sangria, which has a nice bite to counteract the sweetness. The cucumber garnish comes in handy when you’re starving and out of free chips. The La Habana is Urban Taco’s version of a mojito — according to a friend who’s a self-proclaimed mojito expert, the La Habana is the best in town.
Appetizers are kind of a crapshoot. The panela asado masaryk is a standard baked brick of cheese, but the chicharron de queso is a sheet of cheese curled into cone shape. I actually looked inside the cone to find the cheese, until I realized I was holding it. It was like eating shards of fried cheese. If had been a little thicker, the chicharron de queso would have been perfect to eat with the panela asado masaryk. The crudo ceviche with ahi tuna was fresh and light, with crunchy jicama. But the guacamole de ceviche didn’t work: the snapper didn’t meld well with the taste of the avocado and wound up being an overpriced mess.
The star of Urban Taco’s menu is the taco. They’re pretty small, so take advantage of the three-taco special, delivered with two sides. The deal comes to $9.75, which is a good price considering single tacos are at least $2.75, depending on the variety. Watch out for the extras — flour tortillas are 15 cents, and seafood tacos (with the taco deal) are a dollar extra.
The al pastor taco has as much pineapple as pork, and every bite is juicy and mildly sweet. The best tacos were of the sea — red snapper and ahi tuna. Both have a healthy amount of spice, courtesy of guajillo and serrano peppers. The slow-roasted pork in the carnitas taco is nicely complemented by salsa roja, and the beer-braised beef in the amber barbacoa is heavy, but the corn in the taco balances it. The chicken tinga taco is a letdown. It’s dry in comparison to the others, and the potatoes add too much mush. The best tacos have a variety of textures, and the chicken tinga is too one-note.
The sides don’t sound very impressive in print, but most of them are surprisingly delicious. The roasted corn crema lime is sweet, creamy, and tart. I loved it, probably because I love anything with both cheese and cream in it. The mango jicama slaw is refreshing and simple, with nothing beyond jicama and mango. The poblano rice is a good addition to any of the tacos, but the black beans were a lump of sad, dry bean paste.
I’m pretty conservative about tres leches cakes, so the cinnamon icing on this cake was off-putting to me — scrape off the icing to get more of the traditional flavor. The Kahlua cheesecake is heavy on the coffee flavor.
Urban Taco is no low-end Tex-Mex restaurant. When good, it’s fresh, light, and tasty, but be prepared to pay for quality over quantity. If you’d rather stick with cheese enchiladas, have at it. But if you’re looking for something a little more upscale that won’t leave you reaching for the Pepto, head to Urban Taco. •
290 E Basse, Ste. 105
THE SKINNY: Upscale Mexican dining; small but flavorful tacos made with fresh ingredients.
BEST BETS: Red snapper, ahi tuna, and al pastor tacos; mixed drinks
HOURS: 11am-10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat