Critic's star breakdown
- Food: 4 stars (out of five)
- Service: 3.5
- Atmosphere: 3.5
- Overall: 4
A Latina friend of mine recently recommended El Tocayo as an authentic Mexican-dining experience. I had actually spotted the taqueria — located in El Noa Noa market on Alcoa Highway — several times in my travels and had often been curious about it. Said friend and I met for lunch not long ago so that I could check it out for myself.
The only customers we spotted on our arrival were a group of Maryville College students, who were on a field trip as part of their Latin American culinary history studies. That — along with the soccer matches and telenovelas on the TV screens — gave El Tocayo some additional street cred as my Grub buddy (who happened to know the group) and I slid into a booth. We took a stab at the menu, which is written mostly in Spanish.
Like most Mexican-food restaurants, El Tocayo offers familiar-sounding dishes as well as items that don't always find their way onto menus, including tostadas, burritos, botanas, tortas, nachos, fajitas and quesadillas. Other sections feature fish and shrimp entrees, and the house specialties include dishes such as steak ranchero encebollado (made with an adobo marinade), enchiladas de camaron (shrimp) and chuletas ahumadas (pork cutlets).
For this trip, however, we would be focusing exclusively on El Tacoyo's tacos. My lunch companion felt compelled to try their huaraches ($5.99), while I elected to keep things textbook with four different variations on the basic taco ($1.75 each): chorizo (sausage), pastor (another marinated pork variation), barbacoa (a style of barbecue) and the more traditional azada.
Hard-core taco fans might be interested to note that the selection of ingredients also ranges from the popular fish option to such cow-based parts as head meat, tongue and tripe. We both passed on the latter.
While we waited, our server delivered all the trappings I would need to make my taco adventure complete, including bowls of diced onions, chopped cilantros and limes, and bottles of red and green tomatillos.
The huaraches, which are served on a monstrously large platter, are built on a foundation of corn-based masa dough (a consistency that's an interesting blend of hard and soft shell) and then topped with a heap o' ingredients that includes seasoned beef, cheese, onion and lettuce. We both chipped away at this tasty and satisfying behemoth of an entree and still never polished it off.
The tacos are served in smallish, soft, corn tortillas, each topped only with its respective meat filling. From there, I loaded them up with different combinations of the preset accompaniments. Each variety was distinctive in flavor and consistency, from the spicy chorizo to the smoky barbacoa.
It's interesting to note that El Tocayo makes its tortillas and its nacho chips on site, and that extra touch contributed even further to my leaving not just stuffed but feeling as if I had just taken an authentically figurative bite of Mexican culinary culture.
Afterward, my friend took some time to give me a tour of the market, pointing out a lot of the popular ingredients in Mexican cuisine as well as unique candy and dessert items that are in demand south of the border. The market also carries those high-octane, real-sugar Coca-Colas that are bottled in Mexico, and I think my failure to order one of those was the only mistake I made in visiting El Tocayo.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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