What is a real taco? What could make a taco not real? Is it the tortilla? The meat? The price? The salsa? The person eating it? The neighborhood that the taco is served in?
I found myself pondering these questions on the patio of Rreal Tacos in Midtown. I didn’t answer any of them, of course, because I’m not quite a philosopher of tacos. Here’s one question I did answer: Does the extra “r” in Rreal Tacos mean the tacos are extra real?
Not quite. The name Rreal Tacos is a play on chef Adrian Villarreal’s last name, a word that roughly translates to “royal settlement.” So, you might read that name as “Royal Tacos” as much as an implicit declaration of authenticity.
Villarreal is a familiar face in Midtown. The neighborhood knows him from Tap Gastropub, where he served as executive chef, and the Spence, where he was tapped to be chef de cuisine by celebrity chef Richard Blais.
However, the tacos Villarreal prepares at Rreal are less an indication of these fine-dining bonafides and more about his upbringing in Monterrey, Mexico.
The menu served at Rreal boasts some rather specific regional touches. There is the Pork Trompo, apparently a Monterrey-specific twist on the al pastor taco, differing in that the spit-roasted, paprika-marinated pork is crisped on a flattop, giving another textural layer of crunch to each bite.
There’s the Chicken a la Veracruzana taco, a homey-tasting pile of shredded chicken stewed down with tomatoes, olives, capers, onions and garlic. Ordered on one of Rreal’s housemade corn tortillas, which hold up a little more to the juicy meat than the standard corn tortillas, this is one of the better, unique options here. I’d never tasted anything quite like it, though the brash combination of tomatoes, olives, capers and garlic reminded me a bit of an Italian puttanesca sauce.
But Villarreal hasn’t left behind his classically-trained-chef chops. The crisp avocado side strikes me as a distinct accomplishment of kitchen engineering: a thin but sturdy layer of fried breading coats each wedge of soft, ripe avocado. I loved dipping these things in the creamy adobo sauce that accompanied them. Villarreal also uses them to fill out the refried bean-slathered vegetarian taco.
All of the tacos, which include the more familiar grilled chicken and beef, barbacoa, carnitas and fish options, come dressed with a fine mince of onion and cilantro and a little wedge of lime. No one could accuse tacos like these of being unreal. They’re very traditional little things, though not without a few quibbles.
Most of the meats at Rreal, especially the fatty carnitas and tender barbacoa, could use a pinch more salt to bring out their flavors. This can be resolved with a heavy dousing of the house salsas, which bring enough flavor to distract from any blandness in the meat, though I wish there were a spicier salsa available, too. The biggest hit of heat you’ll find at Rreal is the serrano pepper toreados, blackened peppers that possess a potent kick, though they’re more of a side bite than something that can really dress up a taco.
There’s also the noticeable absence of a salsa bar. So, you’ll need to study the list of “extras” and order them with your tacos, rather than graze over them with the little plastic cups offered at most taquerias. A few of these are free (shaved radish, fresh jalapeno, shredded cabbage) but many will incur a surcharge of 50 cents.
The best extras, though, can make a world of difference. Dress up the carnitas with creamy chayote slaw and you won’t be disappointed. The sauteed peppers and onions add much needed depth to the grilled beef.
All of which means a single taco, with upcharges for the housemade corn tortilla and sauteed peppers and extra salsa, can start to approach $5. Is that too much for a taco? I’m used to paying closer to two bucks for very good tacos at taquerias where the rent is probably cheaper and the meats are probably not of the same quality as Rreal. In Midtown, it might be about the right price.
In any case, don’t skip the drinks. I like the generous margaritas they pour into salt-rimmed plastic cups. If you happen in on the right day, they might even have something more unusual, like the house tepache, a traditional fermented pineapple drink that balances the sweet, refreshing flavor with an acidic, funky finish. Villarreal, who has been behind the counter every time I’ve visited, cautioned that the tepache isn’t for everyone and offered me a taste before I ordered a glass. It was a welcome relief from our recent summer heat.
Does all of that mean that the tacos at Rreal are more real than others? Oh, I don’t know. I tend to believe the most real taco is the one you’re holding in your hand. If it happens to be one at Rreal Tacos, you’ll be just fine.