Friday, September 21, 2012

Taking time for tacos at Santo Coyote

Posted By on Fri, Sep 21, 2012 at 9:50 AM

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Typically, when I start to feel the irrepressible need for tacos, my mind is directed towards the often less-than-beautiful, more authentic locales, including taco trucks, taquerias inside a random gas station or pawnshop, or a rather inconspicuous Mexican grocery store or carniceria. Though most of these locations tend to come up a little short on looks, the food typically speaks for itself. But every now and then, I enjoy the taco options of the more neat-and-tidy, air conditioned, relatively upscale Mexican restaurants. When done right, these establishments can put out dishes that are well thought out, meticulously constructed, and every whit as flavorful as any street taco vendor. Sometimes, however, you simply get a plateful of reheated refried beans, dry, bland rice, and a massive deep fried chimichanga swimming in Velveeta cheese and watery sour cream straight out of a caulking-gun-like dispenser.

Santo Coyote has been a popular establishment in North Little Rock for some time now, but recently they have extended their small salsa-smothered empire to the west Little Rock area at Pleasant Ridge. It’s a sharp looking space, with well-dressed servers, comfortable seating, and a sizeable umbrella-shaded patio, where patrons can get their fix for south-of-the-border flavors, without traveling south of the 630. You expect to pay a bit more for such ambiance, but this is negligible if the food is still able to deliver the flavors of authentic Mexican cooking.

With a mind dead-set on tacos, I perused my way through the menu which features around a dozen taco varieties, all served in either flour of corn tortillas. They are essentially all served a la carte, each one costing you $2.50. I selected the four that resonated with me at the moment: chorizo, brisket, pastor, and al carbon. Within a few minutes, I was greeted with an oversized, lovely white platter with my array of tacos, served alongside a pair of housemade red and green salsas. As I set eyes on my plate, I was instantly filled with that warm, glowing, tickly feeling, an excitement I sometimes call the “taco tingle.” Like a kid on Christmas, I plunged into my plated presents with gusto.

Overall, these tacos made a fairly solid showing in the taco arena. Some elements were fantastic, some elements could use a few upgrades. Of the more pleasurable pieces of this meal, the brisket taco takes top honors. The meat is slow cooked in a bright red pepper sauce, then topped with diced onion and cilantro. The sauce, which tasted of cayenne and poblano, brought a mouthful of intense, smoky flavor with each bite. Not overly spicy, so as to overwhelm the stewed, tender beef, the sauce was an unexpectedly perfect accompaniment to the taco. The chorizo taco was a delightful blend of spicy, crumbled sausage, rich and bold in flavor, accompanied by a green tomatillo salsa. The tart citrus of the tomatillo is a nice companion to the chorizo, as it cuts through the grease of the sausage and adds a bright, refreshing element to an already excellent taco. The pastor was forgettable, nothing you would send back to the kitchens, but also nothing to brag to your friends about. The marinated pork was a little too chewy for my tastes, and the bits of incorporated pineapple go unnoticed in the spices adhered to the pork. Lastly, the tacos al carbon were rather disappointing. Though visually appealing, the grilled skirt steak was significantly overcooked, yielding tough, chewy beef, barely able to be severed by my pearly-whites without a significant amount of force. The flour tortillas left a little room for improvement as well, a little too dense, thin, and chewy, I somewhat regret not asking for corn.

With my drink and a side of rice and beans (also a la carte), my taco lunch exceeded twenty clams after tip. Needless to say, these ain’t the cheapest tacos in town. But you pay a bit of a premium for the location, the ambiance, and the opportunity to sit downwind of people smelling of the latest fragrance by Ralph Lauren. Santo Coyote makes a respectable attempt to capture the thrill and charisma of the street taco, with enough variety to please even the pickiest of eaters (there’s even a chicken finger taco!). But if you are looking for lengua, cabeza, or chicharron, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Santo Coyote is located at 11610 Pleasant Ridge Rd, Little Rock and 2513 McCain Blvd, North Little Rock.

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