Tacoma’s 72nd Street is the city’s most convenient entryway to a quick Mexican lunch.
Take the 72nd exit from I-5, head east. Between Park and Portland avenues, find Taqueria El Grande, Taqueria El Rinconsito and Tacos Guaymas.
Each specializes in portable eats. Tacos, burritos, mulitas, sopitos, gorditos and much more for those with time to sit and eat. Order at the counter and detour to the salsa bar for a few cups of pico, pickled carrots and limes. Back on the road in just a few.
Have a little more time to spend eating around that neighborhood? Find handmade tortillas, two taco trucks and a sit-down Mexican eatery specializing in seafood.
TAQUERIA EL GRANDE
7202 S. Park Ave., Tacoma; 253-472-5905
The first stop off the freeway is Taqueria El Grande. I first wrote about this taqueria in 2011 when it still had wheels and operated as a mobile unit with a rickety astroturf picnic area and a few tables inside a converted gas station.
The next year it moved inside that old gas station, now painted a sunny marigold.
Inside, find two tidy dining areas with rosy walls, glossy wood tables and a serve-yourself salsa bar in the back of the bigger dining room.
Limited menu items mean fewer choices than the others nearby, but it’s also less expensive for burritos, tortas, sopitos and mulitas.
I used three dishes as my litmus test during two visits at each taqueria: Carnitas tacos, a chicken burrito and carne asada.
Of the litmus items, El Grande excelled at carnitas tacos ($5.99, three taco plate). Slow-cooked pork shoulder tasted more meaty than fatty, and I heard the fry cook griddle the tacos to order. The were dressed in verde sauce, onions and cilantro. Carne asada ($11.99), thin skirt steak, had a better marinade than texture, which was too chewy and the edges were buckled. A too-soupy adobada torta ($4.25) with sliced tomatoes and shredded iceberg was missing the standard torta ingredients of cilantro and jalapenos. A thin chicken burrito ($4.49) skewed in favor of beans and rice over slow-cooked chicken.
The rice was fine, refried beans were soupy.
From the restaurant’s breakfast menu, a neat find at a taqueria, a chile relleno duo ($8.59) offered poblanos with eggy omelet jackets; the dish oozed gooey strands of queso.
Bottom line: Best price in this series, but less successful execution overall. If you go, get the carnitas.
Salsa bar: Two salsas, radishes, pickled carrots and jalapenos, lime wedges and cabbage pico.
Extras: A 16-item breakfast menu offers huevos rancheros ($6.59), huevos con chorizo ($6.99) and birria de res ($7.59). Also eight seafood dishes, including coctel de camaron ($10.99) and several shrimp dishes.
Meat choices: Asada, carnitas, adobada, chicken; ask counter servers for more choices.
TAQUERIA EL RINCONSITO
7210 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-671-1876 or elrinconsito.com
Founded in Kent in 1997 by Abel Brambila and Lupe Guzman, this chain has grown to 14 locations from Everett to Tacoma.
Tacoma’s location is where an Ezell’s used to be (and Pizza Hut before that) on the corner of the Fred Meyer parking lot, just off 72nd and Pacific Avenue.
Mariachi music blared at volumes loud enough to disguise wailing toddlers, the atmosphere was family friendly and also attractive with sleek black tables, matching chairs, and stylish floor tile that carried into the bathroom.
A carnitas taco plate ($5.74) provided the best flavor of any in this series; the pork shoulder tasted slow cooked in an aromatic broth. Carne asada ($12.08) was flame grilled, with a salty marinade, the steak slightly thicker than the competition, and my favorite of the tour. A spicy chicken burrito ($5.41) was light on meat, heavy on beans.
Rice was more garlicky here, beans were somewhere between thick and soupy.
Gorditos ($4.98) with spicy pork were executed perfectly, the split corn discs stuffed with beans, adobada, lettuce and cheese.
I spotted something on the menu that’s uncommon here: torta ahogada ($6.77), a carnitas sandwich layered with beans on a hoagie roll with a blanket of vinegar sauce flavored with oregano and chipotle. This messy fork-and-knife sandwich was worth a visit alone.
Bottom line: Best in this series. Broadest menu, best service, cleanest restaurant. Get the carnitas, carne asada and torta ahogada.
Salsa bar: Four salsas, pickled carrots and jalapenos, radishes.
Extras: Mexican soup menu. Menudo ($9.96) and pozole ($10.23) on Saturdays and Sundays only, and birria de res ($9.91) and caldo de res ($9.91).
Meat choices: Adobada, birria, carnitas, tripa, asada, pollo, cabeza, lengua
1148 72nd St. E., Tacoma; 253-537-2525 or tacosguaymas.com
Salvador Sahagun and Lorenzo Ramos started their taco chain in Seattle 20 years ago. They’ve grown to 11 restaurants from Tacoma to Everett. The 72nd location is the second of two in Pierce County; the other is near Tacoma Mall on 38th. Note: The Lakewood South Tacoma Way Tacos Guaymas closed and is now a Mexican fast-food restaurant called Cazuelas.
This newer Tacos Guaymas feels more modern than its sister restaurants, with polished concrete floors, shiny tiled tables and cushy booths. A bar located at the front entry offers cocktails and beer.
If any taqueria in the Tacoma area wins for meatiness, Tacos Guyamas takes that trophy. Meaty stuffings tumbled out of burritos, with rice and beans a secondary ingredient. A carnitas regular burrito ($5.96) proved too much to eat in a sitting — I actually had to remove some of the meat (I just lost my food cred right there). The wet version ($8) topped with a red sauce spilled slow-simmered chicken. These were by far the best burritos on this tour.
Carnitas tacos ($1.95 each) were built on larger double-layered corn tortillas, the edges of the pork shoulder were golden and crispy. The carne asada meal ($11.95) came as a giant swath of skirt steak, almost a foot long. The meat was well seasoned and thin, but a touch dry and chewy.
Beans here were superior, a mixture of whole and refried pintos, with no soupiness. Rice was just fine.
Bottom line: Best in this series for burritos and refried beans. By far the best salsa bar. Also the fastest service.
Salsa bar: Four salsas, pico de gallo, pickled jalapenos and carrots, pickled onions, radishes, lime wedges.
Extras: Six vegetarian menu items, including two styles of vegetarian burritos. I prefer the guaymas ($6.50), loaded with grilled vegetables.
Meat choices: Carne asada, al pastor, chicken, carnitas, chorizo, cabeza, lengua, tripe.