Mexican worth the commute 

At Taco Mama in Hot Springs.

We're starting a petition to lobby Shane and Diana Bratton to open a Taco Mama in Little Rock. We don't get to Hot Springs that often. When we do, it's usually to go to Oaklawn. And we generally leave broke.

We don't want to get in the habit of two-hour round trips to eat dinner — particularly at a restaurant that makes killer top-shelf margaritas. But now that we've discovered Taco Mama, we may have no choice. Unless the petition thing works.

Taco Mama differentiates itself in a genre that includes a lot of decent-quality sameness. The difference is its commitment to making almost everything from scratch (tortillas, tamales, salsa, even the enchilada sauce, everything but the chips are homemade), its use of fresh ingredients and its focus on simple, straightforward dishes done extremely well.

Diana Bratton is a classically trained chef — a job role not often found in local Mexican restaurant kitchens — who for the last 14 years has proven herself at Cafe 1217, which sits right next door to Taco Mama. Bratton and husband Shane had planned to open a steakhouse as their second project — even purchasing the ornate, majestic bar and many of the dining tables from the famed Sir Loin's Inn when the North Little Rock restaurant closed in 2007.

But instead they renovated the 1920s hardware store that had become an eyesore next to their upscale, dine-in/deli-to-go institution and opened Taco Mama in February 2009. Shane had found an old tongue-and-groove paneled ceiling in the building that was to be the steakhouse, and like the Sir Loin's Inn bar and tables, it now is one of the notable features of the attractive decor at Taco Mama.

While Shane was building out the restaurant, Diana was building out the menu, hearkening to her South Texas roots to create dishes more Southwest-inspired than Tex-Mex.

In Arkansas, no matter what the style of food they serve, quality Mexican restaurants must come through with good guacamole and queso. Because on those two appetizers will most first impressions be drawn.

To our way of thinking there's really no way to improve on Taco Mama's approach to guacamole ($7) — chunks of avocado and tomato tossed with diced onion and jalapeno, perked up with chopped cilantro and a shot of salt. No fillers, no binders.

The queso (a bargain at $4) is a different take on the cheese dip concept. It's of the "white" family, but not the shiny, quick-to-congeal variety nor the so-thin-you-can't-keep-it-on-a-chip style. Bratton starts with a white sauce and adds shredded mozzarella and a white, easy melting processed cheese. Despite healthy doses of cumin, chipotle and cilantro, it's subtle, creamy and extremely tasty.

We've never had better tortilla soup, and we really love tortilla soup. Bratton's starts with chicken broth, like most, but she says she takes the same corn meal used to make the tamales, soaks it in cold water and then uses the mixture to thicken the broth. Dosed with grated cheese, tortilla strips, chunks of chicken and slices of avocado, it's fabulous. A cup ($4) is as big as a bowl of soup most places. We imagine the bowl ($7) is a tankard.

Rosey's Tamales ($8) are created next door by a longtime cook at Cafe 1217. They come from Rosey's mom's recipe back home in Mexico. Two short, squat, flavorful tamales come folded in corn shucks. The masa is darker than most, colored with pureed chili sauce, and lighter-textured than most, because Rosey whips the vegetable shortening "until it's fluff," Bratton says.

Shrimp and crab (real, not faux) enchiladas ($11) are creamy, flavorful and mild, while the trio of fish tacos ($9) features plump fillets of tilapia fried crisp in homemade beer batter, topped with pico de gallo, large slices of avocado and cabbage; they, too, were as good as we've had.

Entrees come with a light, delicate rice, colored and flavored with cilantro. Diners also have a choice of pinto, black or refried beans. Bratton points out that her beans don't feature animal products, and it's notable that tacos, enchiladas, burritos and nachos can be made vegetarian.

Though three to-go boxes created an imposing on-table tower, we couldn't pass up dessert. A special was a rich but delicate chocolate cake, served warm with cinnamon/caramel ice cream — but not just any ice cream. Bratton created the recipe and contracts with Nom Noms Mexican Chill-n-Grill, a Hot Springs eatery, to make it. The cinnamon and caramel make an inspired and creamy combo. But for us, the star of the dessert show were the churros, ridged cinnamon toast sticks, in essence, that are crispy and sugary on the outside and gooey on the inside. Taco Mama serves them with a Mexican chocolate dipping sauce dosed heavily with cinnamon. At $5 for three, they are dreamy good.

Everything we ate at Taco Mama was as good — and usually better — than we've had. So why should we be surprised to get the best margarita we've ever had (outside those a mixologist friend carefully crafts)? The large, top-shelf selection wasn't cheap at $10, but it was perfectly balanced, rare in a margarita. It was neither too sweet, nor too tart, nor too strong. Orange juice balances the lime, there is no margarita "mix," and the high-quality tequila offered a nice flavor complement and not a red-hot kick. Our friend's frosty goblet of Dos Equis amber looked equally appealing.

There's a fun, hip, slightly irreverent vibe at Taco Mama, and you'll feel it even before you enter the door as you encounter the Taco Mama bull, a massive beast in the parking lot scavenged from the guy who scavenged it from the defunct local Bonanza and turned into Taco Mama's float in the World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade. Stop and take your picture with him on your way in or out.

And please appeal to the Brattons to consider a Taco Mama outpost in Little Rock!

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