The little sign out front made a menu almost unnecessary during my first visit to Taqueria La Piñata in the Washington Square shopping center on North Clinton Street.
“Pozole $9.99,” was scribbled in purple chalk about halfway down under selections the owners must have thought were more enticing. But there was nothing that sounded better this frigid afternoon.
The dark red broth of this soup was rich but not as spicy as I thought it would be based on its color. Chunks of stewed pork parts were falling from the bone, and the big starchy pieces of hominy almost emulated potatoes after cooking for so long. Raw cabbage, onions and radish were perfect accents and I ate every last drop of the delicious concoction.
It was slow-cooking, authentic Mexican at its best, and there was more of it to be found at this spot, which was once home to Danny's Italian Grill.
The Birria Estilo Jaslico was another specialty that took slow-cooking to great heights, and I found it to be unique. The dish consisted of tender, shredded beef stewed in tomatoes and guajillo peppers that came with rice, beans, tortillas and cilantro and onions for garnishing. The beef had a smoky essence, a whisper of sweetness and a spice note from something along the lines of allspice or maybe just cinnamon and/or nutmeg.
Whatever it was, it was unique and delicious.
The most unique offering, however, did not favor as well.
The Torta Ahogadas was sort of a Mexican French dip with pork also stewed in a guajillo sauce. The sandwich also had thick slices of queso fresco, jalapeños, tomatoes, onions, mayo, sour cream and fresh avocado inside. But unlike a normal torta, its bun was soaked in the tangy sauce. The pork was a bit dry even with all of that sauce; it was difficult to eat and I would not have it again.
The tripe in my tripe taco also had an interesting twist, but without a good result. The beef stomach was breaded on one side and fried so it was crisp, almost like a pork crackling. This made it texturally inviting but the sort of funky tripe flavor was lost as a result. That flavor was replaced with an acrid aftertaste from being fried a little too long or perhaps from subpar oil.
The Queso La Piñata was the best choice if you like cheese with your chips – you really don't need them, however, because La Piñata's salsa and chips (white and yellow corn that were fresh, warm and crispy) were spot on.
It was a layer of melted mozzarella on a plate topped with either fajita-style steak or chicken along with chorizo, grilled onions, peppers and tomatoes. There was nothing not to like about it.
The standard queso dip was pretty mundane compared to versions at most Mexican eateries and I would pass on it.
The queso dip worked better when drizzled over my chorizo nachos, which were pretty much perfect. They were loaded with not-too-spicy, not-at-all-oily ground Mexican sausage and all of the ingredients were perfectly proportioned so you got a little of everything in each bite. I also appreciated that the jalapeño peppers were tucked into a corner of the plate separately in case someone in my group maybe didn't want them. They were, however, cut into long slices that were way too big to eat in one bite, so those who wanted them – like me – had to dice them up.
Everyone knows somebody who doesn't like Mexican food who would order something like a cheeseburger when outvoted by the family. I am not that guy. But when the Friday night feature was, indeed, a burger, I had to ask about it.
My server at this family eatery said the Hamburguesa La Piñata was “something Dad came up with” and said it will be a menu staple soon. She also said I should get it over any of the Mexican specialties. So I did. And it was pretty darn good.
The big burger was cooked properly, seasoned to have good flavor and topped with crispy bacon, grilled mushrooms and onions, American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, barbecue sauce and a little mayonnaise.
It was a hearty sandwich and I enjoyed it, but it is not the kind of thing that will draw me back because, well, there are a lot of places that make better burgers. But if you have one of those anti-Mexican-food folks in your group, it will be a blessing.
I was not blessed with a good dessert. The fried ice cream was terrible with a chewy exterior coating crystallized vanilla ice cream. The flan had no flavor. It was doused with caramel and chocolate syrup and tasted more like premade vanilla pudding than a rich caramelized custard.
But remember that little chalkboard? It again showed me a winner. The Champurrado – Mexican hot chocolate – got top billing ahead of the pozole, and it deserved it.
A big foam cup arrived filled with a thick, rich, burning-hot concoction that could cure any winter blues. It had the unmistakable bittersweet flavor of Mexican chocolate, was very creamy – almost frothy – and had hints of cinnamon or perhaps nutmeg to give it complexity. It was almost as if it was made with horchata – it wasn't, I asked – and I loved every last drop of it.
La Piñata is nice enough – the owners have added the right touches of Mexican flair without being over the top – but feels a little vacant.
There were also some service faux pas when the place was understaffed on a busy night. Not only did I struggle to locate my server several times, I was forced to wait several minutes at the counter to pay my bill, which was after I walked up after waiting way too long for my server to pick it up, which she was supposed to do. That was followed by additional waiting when the counter person could not figure out how to ring me up. I have never come so close to walking out without paying as I did that evening.
Restaurant: Taqueria La Piñata
Address: 6121 N. Clinton St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer, margaritas
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Queso La Piñata ($7 steak; $6.50 chicken), tripe taco ($2.50), torta ($6.99), birria ($10.99), burger ($8), nachos ($7.99), fried ice cream ($3.50), flan ($3.99), hot chocolate ($3)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Taqueria La Pinata
Out of a possible five