Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
We like Taco Mama. After a long day of traipsing around Hot Springs antique shops, it's a solid, laid-back, fun place to go. It's not fussy and you'll leave satisfied. It's billed as authentic Mexican cuisine, but strikes us as a little more Tex-Mex, or whatever you'd call the Arkansas equivalent. It's set slightly apart from your La Haciendas and your Senior Tequilas.
Afternoon light floods into the restaurant through huge windows that face Malvern Avenue. The cinder block walls are painted with vibrant reds, yellows, oranges and greens. Lights are strung here and there. Whatever the Spanish-language version of "Cake Boss" is plays on a big TV above the bar. The smell of sizzling meat wafts in from the kitchen. Just being in the dining room makes you want some salty chips and a Dos Equis cold enough to leave sweat on the table.
Some Mexican restaurants see chips and salsa as a side note, something customers will just eat, so who cares? Not so at Taco Mama. The chips and salsa are a meal unto themselves. The chips were hardy, thick and crunchy. When we visted, the salsa was chunky and fresh, smoky even. The roasted tomatoes, sweet onions and cilantro were finished off with a nice touch of heat from fresh jalapenos. They were a pleasure to consume, which is more than we can say about the house margarita ($6) we ordered to wash it all down. It tasted a bit watered down and mostly like sour mix, which was a shame. A place like this ought to have a great margarita.
The Mexican Mule ($6) was a little better. When they say it's spicy, believe them. Tequila is shaken with fresh jalapeno, mint and topped with ginger beer. It was refreshing, but a sip leaves you with a lingering sting on the back of the throat. If you're not ready for that, order something with a softer edge. A tad more tequila in the mix might have softened the blow.
Don't eat too many chips, because what's coming up is heavy and you'll need the room. We ordered the Grilled Corn Quesadilla appetizer ($11). It was a finger-food-lover's dream. The corn tortillas were slightly puffy from having been fried and crispy at the edges. They were stuffed with oozy cheese and creamy guacamole and topped with a drizzle of spicy crema. Crunchy and smooth; warm and cool. Healthy? No. Good? Absolutely. In fact, if you're hung over, go get some right now.
For the main course, don't miss out on a tamale, which we ordered as part of a combination platter ($10). In our opinion, Taco Mama serves some of the best tamales around. The tamale wasn't served with sauce, and didn't need any. The masa was well seasoned and the portion of pork inside the tamale was generous, moist and tasty.
We were not as thrilled about the sope, a masa bowl layered with beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, avocado and cotija cheese with the diner's choice of meat. We opted for shredded beef. The masa was lacking flavor, and the shredded beef was very fatty. The refried beans, however, had a great flavor, and the side order of rice was perfection. It wasn't the typical shade of orange you see at most Tex-Mex restaurants. It was fluffy, green and seasoned with cilantro.
The Mexican Cocktail ($11) was a pleasant surprise. An oversized margarita glass came stuffed with perfectly poached and seasoned shrimp, avocado, cilantro and red onion. All were soaked in a spicy tomato sauce akin to Bloody Mary mix. It was cool and refreshing, with a pleasing kick.
Our order of gorditas ($8) were so-so: solid enough but nothing to write home about. We got two hand-made masa shells, stuffed with our choice of meat (we went with steak and carnitas), refried beans, lettuce, pico, avocado and cotija cheese. The masa shells were hardy, but tasted little other than "fried." The steak filling was scant and gristly. They were filling, but we probably won't order them on return trips.
Believe it or not, we still had room for an order of churros ($5). This staple dessert was served in small pieces with a side of chocolate sauce. Anything covered in this much cinnamon and sugar can hardly be bad, but these fell short of stellar. They will satisfy a sweet tooth, but next time we'll go with the flan.
Taco Mama is a fun place. This trip was a little uneven, but we left happy and we'll be back. The atmosphere is welcoming, the staff is friendly and the food is satisfying. It may not knock your socks off, but you're not going to leave hungry or mad, that's for sure.
1209 Malvern Ave.
On a couple of previous trips we ordered the Chile Relleno ($8) and were not let down in the slightest. It's a good dish and it looks different from those at other restaurants. It's a huge poblano pepper, lightly battered and pan-fried, and oozing with cheese. You can add meat for a couple of bucks. Ordering a combination platter will allow you to get this along with a stellar enchilada.
11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day but Sunday.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.