Tex-Mex Tuesday: Stoked Tacos & Tequila
In Vermont, where I lived for 17 years before moving to Houston in November, there are two kinds of tacos: staunchly locavore ones using ethically farmed meats and scratch sauces, or the warmed-over-cheese-sauce kind you don't want to eat. Yes, I'm talking primarily about Taco Bell, but even then, there are only three of those in tall of the Green Mountains. I bring this up because the genre of high-quality, sustainable tacos with big, unique flavors is surprisingly difficult to find among the glorious stuffed tortillas of Houston. I'm well-covered for $1 gas station tacos, homestyle hole-in-the-wall tacos and Beard-nominated tacos. But Midtown's two-month-old Stoked Tacos & Tequila is nearly alone (along with the Heights' Eight Row Flint) in the category of fun craft tacos.
And "fun" is definitely the operative word. Take, for example, the drinks list, which includes quirky treasures such as a Michelada popsicle that's served ready to be dipped into a can of Tecate, as well as the above banana daiquiri complete with smiling banana dolphin. Want to share it with friends? It can also be served in a pineapple, sized for four. For teetotalers, there are aguas, such as the surprisingly low-on-sugar watermelon and lime version above.
It played particularly well with the guacamole that's also pictured, an exceptionally creamy iteration bedecked with toasted pepitas, watermelon radishes and queso fresco.
Nachos, too, get a fresh treatment from chef-owner Adam Puskorius. The chips are made from house-crafted tortillas. The only cheese is a flurry of Chihuahua queso—no oily fake stuff or stretchy jack. Roasted poblanos, charred salsa verde and cilantro lend the whole combination a dash of green, even if the diner chooses reddish chicken tinga to top the platter. House pickles are a significant element at Stoked, and slivers of jalapeño and carrot lend the nachos an extra slap of sour heat.
Still haven't scratched that itch for chips? I've never picked up an in-the-bag Frito pie as heavy as the one at Stoked. This likely owes to the choice of meat: house-smoked brisket that's smothered in tangy adobo and paired with charro bean dip and lime and queso Chihuahua, as well as fresh onions and cilantro. It is delectably gross as most Frito pies, but with more of an accent on "delectable" than "gross."
But tacos are rightfully what give the restaurant its name. It's clear from the pricing (tacos range from $3 to $5) that these are made with premium ingredients, but it's perhaps even more apparent in the fully dimensional flavors. The fish taco centers around tempura-fried redfish straight from the Gulf. Pickles and lime deliver acid, while chipotle remoulade brings cream and heat. Managing partner Keith Doyle says he's particularly fond of the taco filled with queso asadero, which eats like a chewy grilled cheese with avocado and salsa verde. I preferred the Stoked Street Taco, filled with griddle-crisped chunks of marinated 44 Farms skirt steak.
Still, it's the behemoth above that's most worthy of note. The Taco Norteño is made with a burrito-sized homemade flour tortilla that's lightly grilled, leaving it just stiff enough to withstand its filling of ultra-moist brisket, chayote squash, radishes, avocado and cilantro, all baptized in both salsa verde and adobe-coriander barbecue sauce.
If you're really hungry, it's possible to finish it on your own, but at a place where fun is the object, it's even better to invite the whole gang and share the taco-tastic wealth.