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DINING REVIEW: A blast from Baja

By: NATHANIEL GLEN
October 7, 2009
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photo - The catfish in the fish tacos at Maria's Taco Shop is farm-raised, but the batter and toppings are light and fresh. Maria Arriaga showed off a plate of them during lunchtime on a recent Friday at the eatery on East Pikes Peak Avenue. Photo by CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE
The catfish in the fish tacos at Maria's Taco Shop is farm-raised, but the batter and toppings are light and fresh. Maria Arriaga showed off a plate of them during lunchtime on a recent Friday at the eatery on East Pikes Peak Avenue. Photo by CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE 

When exploring Colorado Springs taquerias, I always try to uncover some specialty that makes each stand out from the rest.

Often these tiny Mexican restaurants, which spring up in the city’s forgotten strip malls, come and go with little more notice than the immigrant laborers they serve. The menus are often nearly identical. The décor is classic low-rent.

But somewhere on the menu, the good ones offer a dish that showcases not just their home country, but their home state: Oaxacan stuffed aguachiles, Guadalajaran tortas ahogadas, and Sonoran hot dogs.

At Maria’s, it’s Baja-style fish tacos.

The deserts of Baja jut into the Pacific, where big waves crash along the long coast, and tiny shacks in the shadow of giant cactuses often attract lines of surfers and locals with fresh, narrow fish fillets, deep fried and served in a soft corn tortilla with a nest of cabbage, cilantro, crema fresca and maybe a little avocado and lime.

Maria’s does not quite match the regional delicacy. Here, the fresh-caught fish is replaced with farmed catfish, but the batter is light and good, the cabbage is crisp and cool, and at $2 each, the price is right.

“This is why we come here,” a woman holding a plate of fish tacos and wearing smart business attire (a rarity at local taquerias), told me recently.

Beyond the fish tacos, Maria’s stays squarely in the middle of the pack. The asada tacos ($2) had a nice flavor, but the chopped beef lacked the hot, crispy edges that come from sizzling on the grill. Instead, they tasted like they’d been sitting in a hot tray.

Most taquerias in town offer a salsa bar where you can dress your plate. The best, like El Ranchito No. 3, have a spectrum of salsas from brown to green to fiery red, plus lime, onion, and cilantro for sprinkling. At Maria’s, there is no bar, or even salsa offered on the table besides a Tabasco-like bottle of hot sauce.

With some dishes, you don’t notice the absence. Chicken Enchiladas in salsa verde ($5.50) had the piquant, spicy bite of a sauce made from tomatillos and chiles.

Chiles rellenos ($7) came with meaty poblano peppers, with just the right amount of mild, gooey queso blanco inside and a terrific bright tomato and dried-chile sauce.

But other dishes, like the Sopes — two tostadalike mounds of meat, lettuce, cilantro and a drizzle of sour cream-like crema fresca  on thick, soft disks of masa corn dough — needed a little extra bite that good salsa could provide.

Beyond the food, Maria’s is mixed. English is spoken very well here, so the linguistically timid who don’t want to point or fumble with their poor Spanish can breathe a sigh of relief.

The setting is pretty dreary. The dining room is a Spartan, lightly redecorated version of the dining room that has served two previous taquerias in this location. Though it generally has a steady stream of customers, the room’s collection of chairs and booths has a lonely feeling cast by a loud television that no one seems to be watching. But the room is clean, and the service is friendly.

These are minor quibbles. With a salsa bar to dress up the tacos, Maria’s could easily find itself as one of the city’s favorite authentic taquerias.

MARIA'S TACO SHOP
3 stars
out of 5
(Off-the-hook fish tacos)
Address: 2812 E. Pikes Peak Ave.
Phone: 471-4525
Entrees: $5-$7.50
Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
Vegetarian: Plenty
Alcohol: No
Credit cards: Yes

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