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Few other states have seen their takes on Mexican cuisine more widely emulated than California. Drawing inspiration from the Pacific, and capitalizing on the long growing season — making fresh fruits and vegetables available almost year-round — California or Baja cuisine has made itself known in nearly every corner of America. Fortunately, those West Coasters are not all raving mad from excessive sunshine, and their take on classic Mexican favorites is rather delightful when done correctly. Now, one of Little Rock's newest restaurants, Rock 'N Tacos, has decided to bring a piece of the West Coast to the South.
Rock 'N Tacos is clean and casual, an order-at-the-counter, assemble-to-order establishment, where you select your salad, burrito, or tacos and the staff puts together the food to your specifications. These assemble-to-order places are clearly built for speed and efficiency, which means the various components of your meal are sitting around in heated plastic containers before your order. Despite our preconceived bias against such restaurants, we were pleasantly surprised by the offerings at Rock 'N Tacos.
The menu here is not particularly adventurous. It's the sort of Mexican food that appeals to diners who are generally less eager to seek out more authentic options from taquerias and food trucks. You'll find big taco salads in crispy fried flour tortilla bowls, street tacos, chimichangas, ceviche and burritos. Rock 'N Tacos is heavily promoting the tamales, made in-house, and runs a number of rotating daily specials.
But this being "California-style" cuisine, we felt obligated to first sample a big burrito as well as a fish taco, the two items we equate most with Baja-style fare. The fish taco ($2.59) was lovely. The white fish is batter-dipped and fried a deep golden brown. It was a fairly thick, substantial cut of fish that filled the whole of its flour tortilla. It was topped with a white sauce, crispy cabbage, and a mild green tomatillo salsa — each complemented the fish well, and didn't overwhelm the mild fish's flavor. The flour tortillas were, regrettably, not the fresh house-made variety, but did not substantially detract from the dish as a whole.
Our burrito ($7.50) was a good bit tastier than others we've experienced at burrito joints similar in design, despite the all-too-familiar "scoop and serve" set-up. The large, flour tortillas, flecked with spinach, are run through a hot press until softened. We opted for the carne asada and proceeded to fill the burrito with cheddar and jack cheeses, cilantro rice, black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, lettuce and tomato. We were pleased to find our grilled steak flavorful and tender. There were a few chewy bits, but that has never stopped us from polishing off a burrito in the past. There is a small salsa bar with spicy red, mild green tomatillo and pineapple salsas. The pineapple is a bit sweet for us, but the red and green will make excellent additions to most items on the menu board.
A return visit proved to be even better than the first. Here, we opted for the house specialty, handmade beef and pork tamales. The tamales ($1.99) were constructed with perfect proportions of filling to masa. The outer masa layer was soft and delicate, and inside was a rich, meaty, stew-like mixture, seasoned with tomato, onion and green olives. Both the pork and beef versions were splendid, some of the finest we've eaten in quite some time. Next, we sampled a duo of street style tacos ($2.59). We were a little surprised to find these served with melted jack cheese, a bit of a break in tradition, but they were highly enjoyable nonetheless. The pastor was bold, spicy, and tender; the carnitas were even better, with shredded, flavorful meat that had just the right amount of fat to give it a rich pork flavor. These corn tortillas were notably better than the flour — soft, warm and flavorful.
Rock 'N Tacos is housed in a shopping center in West Little Rock, not the usual neighborhood one thinks of when mining for authentic Mexican cuisine. But this California-style spin on Mexican cooking feels right at home, and will likely find the approval of most of the busy lunch crowds this area draws in. Sure, the sign out front comes across as a little juvenile, with its jumbo-sized portrayal of a cartoon dolphin in a Hawaiian shirt clutching a surfboard. But Rock 'N Tacos is surprisingly tasty, enough to warrant a visit from even the snootiest of taco and tamale connoisseurs.