Traditional taco fillings are great. Non-traditional taco fillings can be great, too. But what about tortillas filled with ingredients from another culinary tradition? Sometimes that can be most satisfying of all. Case in point: the Cuban tacos at four-location Houston chain, El Rey Taqueria.
Yesterday, I took advantage of the unseasonable warmth with an al fresco lunch at the Washington Avenue location. Okay, maybe it's less romantic than it sounds. The heat was probably the combined result of El Niño and climate change and my table was on the sidewalk just feet away from the exhaust of passing cars, but the tacos I tried made my meal a mini retreat to Havana via Mexico City.
Though "taqueria" is in the name, El Rey focuses almost as much on Cuban specialties as Mexican ones. That means that besides tortilla soup, burritos and enchiladas, there are also Cubanos, ropa vieja and a mojo pork plate. But I didn't want to decide. And El Rey makes that easy, too. There are burritos, tortas and tacos all stuffed with Cuban-style proteins. I went with the latter to try the most possible in a single meal without sickening myself.
I assumed the El Rey taco would be a standout if the restaurant put its name on it. Turns out, it had the least charisma of the lot, just a lightly seasoned piece of fish with cabbage and creamy habanero sauce.
The magic happened in this basket:
The tender but characteristically stringy ropa vieja fell apart between my teeth in a gush of tomato-based braising liquid. Cabbage and pico de gallo lent crunch to the tender meat, while cilantro sauce lightened up the flavor.
But my greatest affection was reserved for the Cuban taco. It didn't take much to make a big impact—just fajita-seasoned slices of chicken, black beans and crisp-edged plantains under a light covering of uncommonly sweet sour cream. But it tasted like precisely what it was: a Cuban taco. The balance was ideal, and I returned to work craving another taste.