I was driving north on Carlisle when a glorious apparitionappeared to me: a neon sign blazing the simple words CRAFT TACOS into the night. You’ll be happy to hear that I retained control of the car.
Heading back toward home, I saw the TACO sign’s accompaniment, glowing in the other front window of the recently vacant retail space on Carlisle and Campus, the one that had been Rodeo Rustic Furniture until Stranger Factory moved down Central and Rodeo moved next door into Stranger Factory’s old spot: MEXICO CITY STYLE ICE CREAM.
Though I mentioned this tantalizing vision to a few people, no one knew any details. I was in suspense for a few weeks, until finally I heard that the space was going to hold a new venture from the folks behind Tia Betty Blue’s and Tia B’s La Waffleria, two places I love. If they have a weakness, it’s never their food; it’s their extreme – and deserved – popularity. La Waffleria is so popular (and its kitchen so small) that they have a sign at the door on weekends warning of waits up to 45 minutes and politely suggesting that you try back on a less-busy weekday. I was really excited.
As soon as I heard through the grapevine that this new place was open (Thanks, Susan!), we were there.
We had a good feeling about El Cotorro immediately upon walking in. It was fairly early for dinner – a little before 6:00 – and no one was in line at the counter. The restaurant felt spacious without losing intimacy, decorated in bright coral-orange and dark blue, with Edison-style light bulbs hanging from the ceiling in profusion. The counter staff was really friendly, eager to talk about the food preparation and the restaurant in general.
But more importantly, the menu hanging by the counter looked amazing.
Feeling weirdly virtuous, I nixed Arne’s original plan of just getting all eight taco varieties. Surely three tacos each would be enough. We dithered for a little while before deciding to get everything except the pork al pastor and the chicken tinga. Then I suggested that we add elotes (corn on the cob with lime, chile, and cotija cheese) and a mango-rose agua fresca. (Agua fresca flavors rotate daily.) So much for virtue.
We took our agua fresca and water and chose a table in the dining room, which felt very spacious. (If this place gets as popular as I expect, it won’t feel spacious for long.) The tables were almost all two-tops, which seemed sensible to me; it would be easy to push tables together for larger groups.
Our food came out very quickly, the tacos presented simply but attractively three to a long, rectangular plate, each accompanied by a tiny sliver of lime. The server took a moment to explain to us what each taco was and which salsa (from a little station by the door) went well with which. We didn’t really remember the suggestions, but there were signs by the salsa reminding us.
We tasted the elotes before getting up for salsa; it was delicious, sweet and tangy and savory flavors mingling with the crunch of corn and the salty richness of cheese (and, I think, mayo, though it wasn’t listed in the description). Arne marveled that it cost a mere two bucks.
Then we set about tasting all the tacos, passing them back and forth. Each one was terrific. I’ll get to the fillings in a moment, but first I want to laud the tortillas. They were spectacular. The corn tortillas were made fresh in-house, and we could tell; they had a deliciously coarse, homemade texture, not the bland Wonder Bread equivalent encasing the filling of too many soft tacos. The flour tortillas, sourced locally, were used only for the seafood tacos, and they were also delicious, with a little crispness from a recent trip to the griddle.
As for the fillings, each one was spectacular. We were especially interested in the vegetarian options, which are so often afterthoughts. Not here. The nopales taco – cited by the self-described “carnivore” counterwoman as possibly her favorite – boasted several nicely sized chunks of super-crisp battered nopales. Though they weren’t wildly flavorful, it would be almost impossible not to love that crunch – and there was no trace of the sliminess that usually distinguishes nopales. The green onion and melty cheese, as well as the suggested ranchero salsa, punched up the flavor for a delicious whole.
And the Purslane and Papita Guisado taco – explained on the menu to substitute chard for purslane depending on availability, which was the case on ours – was a scrumptious revelation. Robust, filling, and deeply flavorful, this is the kind of vegetarian food that could actually tempt an adventurous carnivore away from pork or lamb.
The seafood tacos were terrific too. Perfectly seared, moist shrimp paired with rich and complex pumpkin-seed salsa; blackened cobia fish with jalapeño-jicama slaw and bright, ripe mango. Given one last bite of each, I chose the shrimp and Arne was delighted to keep the fish, but either of us would have been content the other way.
We almost immediately decided that this place was what we wanted Zacateca’s to be. We were really excited for its opening too – years ago now – and expected great things from the chef of Santa Fe’s The Compound. And, don’t get me wrong, Zacateca’s is fine. But it feels too much like a bar – the tequila is as important as the tacos – and the fillings don’t taste as amazing as they sound. Plus, their elotes costs five bucks. This is far more to our taste: unpretentious and absolutely delicious.
Plus, as part-time pesca-vegetarians, we are so excited to go to El Cotorro on veggie week.
But. I mentioned above being tempted away from lamb? That will be really hard here. Because the lamb barbacoa is amazing. Smoked, then braised, the meat is smoky, rich, and tender, elevated even more by occasional pops of bright sweetness from raisins and herbal complexity from mint crema and a scattering of cilantro sprouts. This taco is a masterpiece. If you can only get one taco at El Cotorro, make it this one.
I was somewhat less impressed by the braised oxtail (though it sure did photograph well). It was nice, but not as unctuous and flavorful as I expected. Since it’s really hard to decide between all the terrific things on the menu and the oxtail is the only taco that costs more than $3 (it’s $4), I recommend getting the barbacoa instead. Arne says I’m too hard on the oxtail, so YMMV. If you try the oxtail, let me know what you think.
Having finished our tacos – with me lamenting multiple times that we just should have gotten all eight, and that we’d have to come back the next day – we moved back to the counter to try some ice cream. The place was filling up, and the taco line was getting long (though it seemed to move fast), but the ice-cream line is separate and we stepped right up.
The flavors rotate daily, and the sign says they are “inspired by Mexico City’s vibrant ice cream scene and feature unusual fruit/herb pairings.” A little chalkboard shows the day’s offerings, and tastes are available. After chatting with the ice-cream chef and tasting several options, we got two mediums so we could have four different flavors: tarragon grapefruit, caramel pear, cherry raspberry, and chocolate ginger. Though the texture of the caramel-pear didn’t look that appealing (it was a little runny), the mouthfeel and flavor were amazing – silky-rich and fruity – and it was my favorite. But every one was better than any gelato I’ve had in years. The tarragon paired brilliantly with the tangy grapefruit; the ginger soared against a perfect chocolate backdrop; and the cherries and raspberries made for a delightfully bright, sweet melange.
We did not, in fact, go back the next day; we waited two days. On our second visit we tried the ceviche, as well as the pastor and tinga tacos we skipped the first time, so we have tried every item on the menu. We also chatted with the counterwoman again, and learned that a beer and wine license is in the works and that prep takes all day, so they’re unlikely to open for lunch anytime soon. More’s the pity – I’d be there weekly for lunch.
The ceviche featured rambutan, ginger, and cucumber, giving it a sweetness that was unusual and deeply appealing. The chips – you can choose between corn or flour or a mix, and of course we got the mix – were freshly fried and delicious, though the corn ones were just a tiny bit tough. Not surprising since they’re made from El Cotorro’s hearty homemade tortillas, but I might just get the flour next time.
The remaining two tacos were great as well, especially the tinga, which had a complexly spicy sauce I really loved.
Open from 5 to 9 every evening, El Cotorro is quickly going to become a favorite Albuquerque stop for dinner, snacks, and dessert. Everything on the menu is from 2 to 4 dollars; our first night’s meal, with agua fresca and elotes to split and three tacos each, cost less than $25 for the two of us. That’s a great deal for food so brilliantly prepared and deeply craveable. I can hardly wait to go again!