Taco Week was a brainchild borne of brash gluttony, but also of insatiable boredom. Yes, a week of tacos. Cheap tacos. And not from those South Side strongholds that serve up steaming and sincere plates of real comida. I wanted to hit the corner pubs, supper clubs and random schlub-drawing establishments that offer easy, greasy gimmicks like dollar taco night to drum up weekday business.
And, to make this first-annual – assuredly last-ever – Taco Week all my own, I decided to draw on my Irish heritage to give it a personal twist. I selected only Irish pubs/restaurants that offered a cheap taco night and figured out how to divvy up the days.
Taco Week was always better as a concept than it was in reality. And, like some of the ground beef I encountered, it was a half-cooked concept, at best.
I thought I was prepared. I’d done ample research and had selected the targets for each night. I’d even made a spreadsheet to facilitate the planning – the first time I’d used Excel in about five years. Such an important week deserved precision. But, it turned out, to paraphrase “Top Gun,” my ego was writing checks my body couldn’t cash.
It all started out well enough. Feeling good after a workout, my trusty tacompanion, who I’d recruited to help judge the tacos and perhaps drive to the hospital if necessary, and I made our way to Henry’s Pub and Grille, just off Downer Avenue. They offered $1 beef and $1.50 chicken tacos on Mondays, as well as two-buck Tecate beer, which, as my taccomplice noted, made it “very festive!”
We both ordered one of each type from the friendly waiter and, since he was doubling as the bartender, a couple of Tecates, too. As expected, it tasted just like Modelo, which tastes just like Dos Equis, which tastes just like Corona.
The tacos came out quickly and dressed with the standard fixings (sour cream was 50 cents extra). We both got the habanero hot sauce, a potent, house-made special mix that was the best part of the meal. As for the tacos themselves, the chicken tasted better than the beef, but both were appropriately priced.
It didn’t seem to bother the diverse crowd, made up mostly of college kids and 20-somethings looking for a good deal. There were backward-hat-wearing bros and three-piece-suit-wearing yuppies. The older couple sitting behind us seemed to know better than the Monday night deal, though; they ordered burgers.
Taco Grade: C
Heading to Flannery’s on East Wells Street the next night, I was still bright-faced and buoyant. Tuesday at the popular Cathedral Square establishment meant $1 tacos, $2 taps and free team trivia. I gathered a group of four friends to help with my story research and try for the $50 grand prize. At halftime, our not-fit-to-print-named team was in third place out of about 15. Knowledge!
However, fueled by three mostly tasteless tacos – one each of chicken, beef and straight-out-of-the-Subway-bin veggie – and some Miller Lites, our team finished in 13th. Our server was very nice, but after the tacos and the ignominious trivia finish, I left feeling like Ron Burgundy after he jumps into the bear pit (“I immediately regret this decision!”).
Taco Grade: D
After helping my tacohort celebrate finishing her last UW-Milwaukee grad school exam on North Avenue for a couple of hours, we decided to call an audible on our original plan of going to Leff’s Lucky Town in Wauwatosa. Instead, we settled on a little spot I’d walked past dozens of times but had never tried.
Appealing to the North Avenue bar crowd, many of whom, like me normally just walked right by, the superbly named Mr. Senor’s on Murray Avenue has a sign outside that reads, “You just passed good Mexican food.”
Not wanting to make that same mistake again, we stopped at the carryout-only window and ordered, presumably from Mr. Senor himself, three small tacos (chicken, beef and pork) for $5.50. They came with the usual lettuce, tomatoes and onions – plus cheese, sour cream, salsa and homemade hot sauce.
In order to salvage some small degree of the original theme, we scurried over to Paddy’s Pub next door and sat outside to have our tacos. They were eaten ravenously and enjoyed immensely. Except the pork. The pork taco was not enjoyed. In the end, it wasn’t what we set out for, but the pony-tailed and slightly frightening owner’s handiwork was just as his straightforward sign described: good.
Taco Grade: B
Before going to The Irish Pub in the Third Ward, I took my tacompanion to the ballet. (Read culture critic Paul Kosidowski’s review here.) After the show, we made our way from the Marcus Center down Water Street to The Irish Pub. Looking a tad out of place but famished, we sat down and ordered four tacos: two beef, one pulled pork and a vegetarian, all $2 apiece. While we waited, I ordered a delicious, limited-time-only pub ale by Tallgrass Brewery, located in Kansas.
The tacos came out in about 15 minutes and looked magnificent. Dressed with a distinctive cilantro-cabbage slaw that would satisfy even the most ardent cilantro hater, they were drizzled with a pinkish-red Sriracha mayonnaise hot sauce. The meat, finally, was cooked to perfection.
While the other pubs failed in aesthetics or flavor, these tacos tasted as good as they looked. Clearly, we’d found a winner.
And so, since we’d begun to feel ground beef nesting in our brains and seeping from our pores, we decided to forego Friday’s outing and quit while we were ahead. Well, at least I was ahead. You definitely don’t want to be behind someone who’s eaten cheap tacos for four straight nights.
Taco Grade: A
Other area cheap taco spots by night:
Monday: O’Lydia’s, $5 (all you can eat).
Tuesday: Bel-Air Cantina, $2; Catch-22, $2; Hinterland Gastropub, $3.
Wednesday: Swig’s Pub and Grill, $1; Leff’s Lucky Town, $2 beef, $3 chicken or pork.
Thursday: The Loaded Slate, $7 (all you can eat).