Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Taco Palenque
Ceviche $7.95
Puntas al Abañil $8.95
Tamale platter $7.95
Raise the Flag

Like at real Tex-Mex eateries, fresh food is what keeps the smiles coming at Taco Palenque.


Taco Palenque

3412 E Belknap St, FW. 817-759-0959. Mon-Thu 7am-5pm, Fri-Sun 7am-9pm. All major credit cards accepted.

s a native Texan with Latino blood in my close family, I’d love to report that I spent part of my childhood at the knee of a wise old Latina, watching her grind the corn and massage the tortillas with her gentle, calloused hands. Truth is, I spent more time watching my mother open the stove wearing Halloween-themed oven mitts (year-round) and pulling out one of those super-sized El Charrito frozen dinners. I’d gently pull the clear plastic cover off, let the steam rush into my face, and gaze while the delicacies in the plastic tray cooled: The bright red-orange “Mexican rice” with a consistency closer to pudding; the refried beans that had formed into a hard crust with a mushy center; the way the cheese sauce and water had separated into a murky creek around the enchiladas. Ah, los placeres de mi juventud!

A little later on, I thought I was on the cutting edge of Mexican cuisine when I discovered guacamole at Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. For reasons still not apparent, I considered the avocado to be practically as exotic as a vodka martini. Both should’ve been denied to my peers because such indulgences were too adult and sophisticated for the other grade-schoolers to appreciate. I was advanced enough to be granted an exception (on the guacamole, not the martini). And so the flag was never down for long at the Fowler family table in Pancho’s. I ate so much gwok over the years that I developed a strange reaction to the stuff — my lips swelled the instant avocado passed them. Still, I didn’t — and don’t — allow a minor annoyance like food allergy to keep me from that smooth, buttery fruit flesh.

Everyone evolves culinarily at a different pace, I suppose. Still, some of the enduring pleasures of Texas dining are the staples of Tex Mex — frijoles, rice, flour tortillas, tamales, buckets of cool guacamole. With the exception of salsa — a condiment whose infinite possibilities of subtle flavor practically demand you be a snob — the key to quality north-of-the-border preparations isn’t so much originality but the freshness of the ingredients. And Taco Palenque satisfies in the latter department.

This new restaurant has replaced what many regarded as a sunken treasure, the Mexican seafood joint El Oceano. My dining companion informed me another great place had preceded El Oceano. Our best guess for the transience of eateries in that location? It’s across the street from a Catholic Church, inhibiting alcohol service. (Can somebody please tell me when booze and Catholicism became mutually exclusive?) So those who enjoy a cold Dos Equis or frosty ’rita with la cena should be forewarned: Taco Palenque serves neither. It does, however, offer a diverse if predictable menu of beef (ground or shredded), chicken, pork, seafood, and even liver dishes.

First, the preliminaries. Chips? Tragically store bought. Salsa? Not thick the way some prefer, but very good, with a surprising hint of sweetness to accompany the medium kick of the jalapeños. Flour tortillas? Soft, hot, and plentiful. And oh, yes, guacamole: obviously prepared just after we ordered it. Whole pieces of just-ripe avocado jostled with bright red cubed tomatoes for space on the plate. Sadly, there was no flag at this table to signal for free second helpings.

We decided to share the ceviche as an appetizer. A really ripping ceviche recipe contains a maritime medley of cod, scallops, and shrimp chilled overnight in that mouth-watering lime-cilantro-onion-pepper marinade. Taco Palenque’s version stuck pretty much to chopped pieces of white fish on a bed of iceberg with a halved lime on the side for extra citrus action. While I could have charged Taco Palenque demerits on lack of variety, the fish was plump, succulent, and redolent with the gentle tang of lime. Let me put it this way: We’d practically finished the plate before someone thought to ask, “Hey, was there any shrimp in there?”

The tamale platter was adequate but disappointing. No complaints about the requisite sides — the refried beans were rich and non-crusty, and the rice had a nice chewiness and a texture that could never be mistaken for a dairy dessert. I ordered the tamales con queso, which in hindsight was clearly a mistake. The cheese sauce here managed to be both bland and overpowering — the flavor was almost as oppressively, generically “cheesy” as in that edible chemical weapon known as Cheez Whiz. The tamales were barely detectable underneath.

Far more interesting were the puntas al albañil, a mixture of pounded skirt steak strips, bacon, and serrano pepper sliced lengthwise. I’ve read that the serrano pepper runs a close second to the jalapeño in terms of its frequency in Mexican dishes but that the former is “considerably” hotter. That’s an understatement. This little killer set off a raging wildfire in my mouth, which, when mixed with the smoked jerky-like flavor of the steak and bacon, created a food sensation that I won’t recommend to timid tummies. It was the most unusual dish we sampled at Taco Palenque, a Tex Mex standard-bearer worth a visit if you’re thinking outside the bun as well as the Bell.

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