Eating out can be expensive, so Food Nation Radio Network set out to find the tastiest, least expensive cuisine in Tampa Bay. A la carte (without side items), authentic Mexican food seemed to be the way to go, and the taco has a storied, spicy history in its origin.
The taco (according to folks at the Smithsonian) originated among the silver miners in Mexico. The name “taco” came from the small slips of paper with gunpowder in them used to break apart the rocks in the mines. In parts of California and Texas back in the early 1900s, exotic women known as “Chili Queens” made tacos, which at that time were considered lower-class street food. (Who knew food trucks would be so trendy today?) The Chili Queens were thought of as dangerous with their spicy taco offerings, and were frequently flirtatious with their male patrons.
Glen Bell set out to take the Mexican original taco, Americanize it and make it a “safer” place for American families to try “Mexican” food. The Taco Bell franchise was born and is still wildly successful today. Ask barflies looking for a snack on their way home at 2am what they like to eat.
While the franchise version isn’t bad, there’s nothing like a freshly-made, warm, corn tortilla pressed in the kitchen moments before you eat it. A hot tortilla with some sort of succulent, moist shredded meat inside will make your tummy happy and your date smile.
Queso Fundido is usually a processed cheese dip that is an American version of the famous Mexican dish Queso Flameado (flaming cheese). In these parts, we don’t flambe in Mex restaurants much, but there are some tasty Queso Fundidos around that would make us go back for more.
Here are local Mexican restaurants we visited recently for tacos and Queso Fundido with a gallery of mouth-watering food pics:
Casa Tina -365 Main Street Dunedin, FL 34698 (727) 734-9226
There were no a la carte tacos on the menu (only platters with side dishes) but this is the location of my favorite Queso Fundido. It is described as melted cheese with salsa and onions and it’s served with warm tortillas with or without chorizo. The cheese tastes like a mild cheddar and is not the smooth, processed version. The chorizo is browned, diced and offers a pleasant heat without being too spicy. Slather this on a warm tortilla and you’ll thank me. Cup $5.50/Bowl $8.95 (The bowl is plenty for two people.)
Red Mesa Cantina -128 3rd Street South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 (727) 896-8226
The a la carte tacos at Red Mesa are a great option for folks who want to have a drink with a snack and not spend too much dough. The shredded pork tacos were my favorite. Tacos range in price from $3.75 to $4.75 with vegetarian, chicken and fish options. The tortillas are made on-site. The tasty queso is a chili cheese dip with chips for $7. It’s what you’d expect a queso to look and taste like.
Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria -2402 S MacDill Ave., Tampa (813) 251-4604
We love being greeted with traditional fruit seasoned with sea salt infused with a bit of chili. The tortillas are tasty and the tacos can be ordered a la carte for $2.50. The carnitas and chorizo tacos were flavorful, but the meat on both of them was dry. They didn’t have the same fresh, moist texture as the other places we visited. The Queso Fundido was hot and melty with authentic Mexican cheese, onions, poblano peppers and chorizo served with warm tortillas ($8.50). I’d go back for that queso any day.
Chihuahua Mexican Grill -4101 South MacDill Avenue Tampa, FL 33611 (813) 837-2138
A bright, colorful family-oriented restaurant in the heart of South Tampa. When you sit down, you are greeted with warm chips and salsa. This place is all about the quality of the food at reasonable prices. The carnitas and carne asada tacos were so moist, so fresh and flavorful. You can tell when food is made with love and that is certainly the case here. Each a la carte taco is $3.00.
Urban Cantina -223 South Howard Avenue Tampa, FL 33606 (813) 251-8226
Urban Cantina on South Howard seems like it is trying to be like a trendy bar that also sells Mexican food. The tacos tasted authentic, but the atmosphere and servers gave it more of a Wing House feel. The Chips and Queso ($4.99) was one of our favorites made with processed white cheese and slightly spicy green chili. We opted for tortillas with it instead of chips for an additional $1.00. The carnitas taco was good, not too dry, not really moist, though. It was a good price for a reasonably-priced snack.
Burrito Boarder -17 3rd Street South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 (727) 209-0202
If it’s Tuesday, head over to Burrito Boarder after 2pm for up to ten $1 tacos with the purchase of a drink. I had the ground beef tacos and for the price I had no complaints. It was freshly made right in front of me with my choice of toppings and it was a buck. A buck!
Taco Bus – St. Petersburg 2324 Central Avenue St. Petersburg, FL 33712 (727) 322-5000 Taco Bus continues to impress locals with their reasonable prices and flexible hours. On Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday they are open 24 hours. A generously filled taco will put you back only $2.99 and their offerings are a little more creative than most of the typical, fresh taco menus around. I tried the Conchinita a Pibil described as “shredded pork marinated in Achiote and bitter orange, then wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted in a smoker”. Served on a warm, corn tortilla, I could taste the citrus in it and the meat was tender and plentiful. The Carne de res Desebrada is a shredded beef filling with tomato and red chili in it. It’s got a unique flavor from the chili and tomato compared to the other beef tacos I’ve had and it’s not too spicy.
Casita Taqueria 2706 4th Street North, St. Petersburg, FL (727) 820-4365
From a tiny building on 4th Street in St. Pete, come some of the best tacos in town. Started by a couple from California, Don and Gwen Arvin, this restaurant is a study in keeping it simple. The atmosphere is quaint and welcoming, the staff is friendly and the prices compared to the quality of the food are outstanding. I love the range of salsas which are more like sauces, from the mild to the deep burn “hurt me good” kind of sauce that I’m just in the mood for sometimes. Every taco I’ve had there was eaten with anticipation because they are always flavorful, the corn tortillas are always fresh and the fillings are cooked with care that takes them to the next level. Prices for the tacos range from $2.99 to $3.25. The carnitas taco was tender and flavorful, the barbacoa was slightly spicy, the chicken stayed moist and the tomatillo salsa is the best I’ve had recently. Go there. Enjoy. Go back again.
Elizabeth Dougherty has been a food writer for over 10 years, attended culinary school and holds a Bachelor’s degree, Magna Cum Laude in Hospitality, Business and Labor Relations from NYIT. She has been a talk show host of nearly 150 episodes of Food Nation Radio which airs each Saturday morning at 6 on AM1010 CBS and other stations. You can read her articles and hear previous shows on her podcast page on the Food Nation Radio Network website and on Facebook.