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Taqueria Paso del Norte livens up a SWLR lunch counter.

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What with all the authentic Mexican restaurants, taco trucks, tortilla stands and burrito joints that have sprung up in the last decade with the influx of our Latino friends into Little Rock, we've been trying to concoct a similar formula for finding the perfect place for South of the Border grub. We think we've got a working hypothesis: The more hand signals non-Spanish-speakers have to use to place their order, the better the place will probably be.

As a test case for our new theory, we went awhile back and checked out one of the promising places in Southwest Little Rock: Taqueria Paso del Norte. Really just a lunch counter tucked in next to the beer cooler in the humungous new Super Mercado Fresco grocery store at the corner of Geyer Springs and Baseline Road, the food there is cheap, hearty and as authentic as you're going to find this side of the Rio Grande. Just as good as the food is the people-watching — especially at lunchtime, when work-a-day Latino laborers and grocery-shopping mothers mingle in the aisles, waiting for their food.

From their short and sweet menu, my companion and I wanted to try a little of everything (not EVERYTHING, everything, however — as we've said before of our dining forays to Southwest Little Rock, if you order something you've never heard of, you might end up dining on something they couldn't pay you to eat on “Fear Factor”). To that end, we tried the tamale special: refried beans and rice, served with three tamales of our choice (chicken, beef, pork, jalapeno cheese and several of those aforementioned “Fear Factor” meats were up for grabs), all for only $5. To that, we added three tacos ($1.25 each) — chicken for him, beef for me. Forgoing the big glass jars of hand-ladled iced tea and punch on the counter, we went and got us and our friend a Southwest Little Rock treat — a pair of ice-cold, imported-from-Mexico longneck Coca-Colas (Latino friends tell us they prefer the MexiCokes because they're made old school — with cane sugar instead of corn syrup).

In short order, after the very friendly lady at the counter brought over plastic jugs of homemade salsa, we chowed down. Everything we had, right down to the beans and salsa, was absolutely fine — the soft taco tortillas still sizzling hot from the grease and the tamales full of juicy meat. Though the thick, somewhat fatty beef found on traditional Mexican tacos takes some getting used to, we've long since made our peace with it. The chicken tacos were particularly good — sweet corn shell, well-seasoned bird, generous helping of fresh chopped oregano and a wedge of lime. Tasty! The tamales were a bit moist for our taste, though they had a fine texture and very good flavor, especially when paired with some of the green salsa and those sweet, sweet, border-hopping Cokes.

In short, while there are plenty of authentic Mexican places to eat in Little Rock these days, not all of them give you the added benefit of dining shoulder to shoulder with the Latino neighbors who are driving the revitalization and vibrancy of Southwest Little Rock. In that respect — and for their fine menu of great food — Taqueria Paso del Norte is tops. If you're in the neighborhood, be sure to check it out.

Taqueria Paso

del Norte

HHH n

8801 Geyer Springs Road (inside Super Mercado Fresco)

565-0702

Quick Bite

Since you're there anyway, be sure to browse the shelves of Super Mercado Fresco — especially the produce section, with brown beans by the scoopful, eight different kinds of peppers in bulk, and more than a dozen leafy, prickly and pulpy items we couldn't pronounce if we tried. It's an adventure in itself.

Hours

10 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m to 6 p.m. other weekdays.

Other info

Cash only. Beer available from the nearby cooler.
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