Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
In our journeys through the small towns of Arkansas, we've been amazed time and again with the specialty restaurants and food vendors tucked away off the beaten path where only the locals go. Certainly, no one would peg Benton as a place serving up some of the best California-style tacos this side of the Golden State — but the locals know better, and when they get a craving for one-of-a-kind tacos and burritos, they head down to a little taco truck called Baja Grill. From their fresh-made salsas, hot sauces and queso to their focus on quality meats and fish, owners Craig and Melissa Roe have turned their little taco stand on Military Road into one of the hottest spots for great eating in Central Arkansas. We've eaten at Baja Grill more times than we can count, and every meal has been a celebration of fantastic taste, mammoth portions and excellent service.
Since Arkansas is the land of cheese dip, we always start off our meal with a small order of chips and queso blanco ($2.95), a smooth, white dip that clings to the chips nicely. The queso is liberally spiked with chunks of diced jalapeno that give it a nice kick. The chips are crisp and come out warm — something to be expected from a sit-down restaurant, but a nice surprise from the back of a taco wagon. The queso isn't anything groundbreaking, but it's a nice, tasty way to get the meal going.
Ordering a main dish always proves difficult, as each choice on the Baja Grill menu represents something delicious. Taco lovers will be impressed with the size of the specimens served here, and we've found several that keep us coming back time and again, like the Baja Beef and the Blackened Mahi Mahi. The Baja Beef ($3.25) is a generous portion of tender shredded beef topped with cheese, cilantro and some of the freshest tasting pico de gallo we've ever had. We were pleased at the savory, slow roasted flavor of the beef and impressed with the way that the flavors all melded together to make each bite nicely balanced. This taco has a different flavor profile than your typical carne asada taco, but beef-fans should still find a lot to love about it. The Blackened Mahi Mahi Taco ($4.25) features large pieces of seasoned fish, slaw, mango salsa, tequila lime aioli and queso fresco. It's a taco with a subtle play of spice, sweet, and savory, and that manages to be filling without weighing us down after we eat a couple.
Perhaps the best of the bunch, however, is the Cuban Taco ($3.25), a pork taco piled high with sour orange-red cabbage-jicama slaw, avocado, cheese, and chipotle aioli. In addition to being one of the prettiest dishes we've ever had the pleasure to eat, the flavors of this taco were unlike any we've ever had, with rich, savory marinated pork complemented perfectly by the slightly crunchy slaw and a spicy sauce that was tempered by cool, creamy avocado. It took about three bites for us to declare it our new favorite taco. As with the beef, the pork was shredded, almost like pulled pork, subtly spiced. It's a taco that walks the line between being good and almost too much.
If burritos are more your thing, Baja Grill will take any of their taco items (excluding seafood), add rice and black beans, wrap it in a large flour tortilla, grill it, and smother it in queso blanco. In the case of The Cuban, this transforms something beautiful into something transcendent, with smoky pulled pork blended with seasoned black beans and rice, all held together with a cheese-saturated flour tortilla and crunchy slaw on top. The marinated chicken, which adds some marinated onions to the mix just to change it up a little, makes a good burrito as well. There are burrito joints out there like Chipotle that pride themselves on huge burritos that are mostly rice and filler. Skip them and head to Saline County for a burrito the size of two fists filled with tender, fresh cooked meat, vegetables, and drenched in luscious cheese.
The folks running Baja Grill are friendly, and even though we were there during the Friday night rush, our orders came out quickly and were hot and fresh. We've not yet found an item we didn't love. This is a food truck worth seeking out from anywhere in the area, and well worth a trip to Saline County — and there's also a sno-cone stand next door if you need something cold to wash down your spicy tacos.