Sometimes people ask why I don’t write bad reviews and I usually tell them the same thing: Bad restaurants can put themselves out of business without my help, but good restaurants need an advocate. But there is another reason, and it’s tied to why I always try to be constructive in my criticism when there’s something I don’t like: restaurants change.
When Mexican Radio opened in the Plaza District, taking over the spot long held by Empire Slice House, there was a fair amount of controversy over the restaurant’s claim of “non-denominational tacos.” Half the people online were telling me that anything less than an “authentic” (whatever that means) taqueria would be an insult. The other half were telling me that the tacos were too expensive because they could get different tacos for much less.
My issue with Mexican Radio when it first opened was much simpler—some of the dishes needed work. Charging more for tacos isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. As part of the Good Egg Dining Group, it’s fair to say that Mexican Radio is likely paying their staff more and sourcing better ingredients than some other taco purveyors. The location in the Plaza District, constantly battling with the Paseo and Midtown for the title of “most hyped” district, also means the rent is higher.
Charge more and make the product better. Now that I’m revisiting Mexican Radio a year after it opened, I’m happy to report that the food is better, the service is more attentive, and the air conditioning is working like a charm. If the prices are too high for you or you feel like you’re not getting enough value or whatever your reasons for not going, ehn, fine. You do you.
Me? I’m eating tacos.
I love nachos. I love fancy nachos and I love cheap nachos and I love those tire-tread chips you get at ball games or movie theaters that comes with the bright yellow sauce they say is cheese but you know if 90 percent petrochemical in origin. All nachos are good, it’s just that some are better.
The Half Moon Nachos ($10) are my kind of nachos. Mexican Radio uses a thick, crispy chip that can hold a tremendous amount of toppings without wilting and they pile carne molida, chihuahua cheese, guac, and crema on top with a smattering of pickled onions and pickled jalapenos on top and some red salsa on the side. I loved them.
Carne molida just means “ground beef,” and they’ve cooked it picadillo style, which uses the fat from the meat and a mix of spices to create a sauce that holds the meat together. (It’s also used in one of my favorite tacos, The Jack ($3.75), which is a high-class version of a fast food taco.)
You get six loaded chips, which is good to share with someone, but probably not great to share with someones. If you’ve got a crowd, look at the Dip Trio ($12) which includes chips, salsa, queso, and guac. Yes, you pay for chips, salsa, and queso here. If that’s your deal breaker, well, okay.
Personally, I think the salsa is great and I love the chips and the guac. I was not terribly moved by the green chili queso ($8), because it didn’t taste like green chili to me at all. It’s a nice, creamy, cheesy queso, but nothing more. That’s good news for those of you who don’t like a lot of spice in your queso, but bad news for people like me who legitimately like the taste of green chilies.
The problem with crispy beef tacos has nothing to do with authenticity and everything to do with laziness. Crispy tacos are most often fast food tacos, which are as lazy as tacos can usually get. I’m trying to remember the last time I got a fast food taco with an intact shell or enough filling to make it worth my while. That’s why I’m such a fan of The Jack ($3.75). This is what happens when a chef designs a crunchy taco. Carne molida, chihuahua cheese, lettuce, a nice pico de gallo, and some parmesan dust inside a crispy corn shell.
This is a nostalgia taco, because it looks and tastes as good as what your brain remembers your favorite hard shell tacos were like. Eating this inspires me to look at other classic dishes and wonder, “What if we actually tried?”
The Carne Asada taco ($5), similarly, will remind you that steak tacos are so much better than what you usually get. Big, well-seasoned, well-seared chunks of skirt steak mingle with guac, pico, and some queso fresco in a soft corn tortilla. This is not your usual taqueria carne asada taco and that’s not a bad thing. The only problem with this one is my mouth and brain can’t decide how quickly to eat it. One bite leads to the next and suddenly it’s gone and you find yourself waving down the nearest server to get another.
This was actually a problem taco when I first visited Mexican Radio, with the meat too big and too chewy for the delicate tortilla, but they figured it out and now it’s one of my go-to orders.
Carnitas taco ($4) is full of really supple shredded pork with salsa verde, julienned radish, and cotija cheese, but it’s wet. Like...so juicy it was forming a puddle under the taco holder. Generally I like my carnitas to get that crispiness from the broiler or a skillet, so texturally it was a little weird for me. Flavorwise, though, it’s got a huge burst of pork flavor with a slightly sour tang from the cotija cheese and salsa verde.
I’d say give the Fried Shrimp Po-Boy taco ($4.75) a miss. I love the concept—medium-small fried shrimp and fried okra are covered in a cabbage slaw with slices of tomato and a healthy slathering of Old Bay-seasoned aioli, but the end result misses the mark. The shrimp flavor is almost completely lost to the aioli, which didn’t taste like it had much Old Bay in it at all.
For a quarter more, however, I definitely recommend the Ahi Tuna Tartare taco ($5). Of note: this taco comes in a “shell” of butter lettuce. If you’d like a tortilla instead of or in addition to the lettuce, you can request it. But I think it’s wonderful without it. Frankly, it’s the best sushi in the Plaza District—nice cubes of raw tuna are tossed with a Sriracha vinaigrette, a dollop of guacamole, and covered with crispy onion and jalapeno. The flavor is perfect, the texture is wonderful. It might get a bit messy, but it won’t stay around very long after you get a bite.
The Potato Crunch Wrap ($3.75) is one of the vegetarian options, but if you get it, don’t order more. This thing is heavy and it’ll destroy your appetite. For one thing, you get both a flour tortilla and a crispy corn shell, but the “meat” of the taco is jalapeno mashed potatoes and julienned carrots. It’s starch on starch on starch, which is fine by me, but it definitely slowed down my otherwise ravenous hunger.
Unless you have the pickiest of picky eaters with you, I wouldn’t bother with the Cheeseburger taco ($6, including a side of beans or rice) on the kid’s menu. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s not...much. Literally, it’s a crispy taco shell filled with a cheeseburger patty that’s been cut in half. It’s a missed opportunity, as I see it: why not carne molida with American cheese melted into it, topped with shredded lettuce and a mild tomato salsa? Maybe toss in a pickle.
On the side, I think the Elotes Style Cauliflower ($4.50) is tremendous. I love the spicing and the way they’ve kept the cauliflower from being too mushy or too raw. Plus the crispy onions and jalapenos add more texture and a pop of heat.
The Spicy Brussels ($4.50) are another must have, but they aren’t kidding about the spice. There’s kind of an Asian twist to it, with red miso and hoisin sauce-glazed cashews, and some smoked bacon.
Crispy Green Rice ($4.50) is a no-go for me. Crispy rice is fine. Cilantro is fine. Sauteed cabbage and crema, fine. Peas? Radish? No thanks. Your mileage may vary, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. The texture was nice and crispy, but the flavors didn’t mesh for me.
Some people still have a mad on for Mexican Radio and I...don’t get it. I really don’t! It’s a perfectly pleasant restaurant making food that tastes good. If you disagree, that’s fine. If you don’t want to eat there, okay. But the vitriol is really misplaced. If you’ve enjoyed Oso, Revolucion, Big Truck, Taqueria El Camino, or the like, then I think you’d probably like Mexican Radio as well.