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Review: Taco Bus serves authenticity, variety in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

After a short wait in line — it's drizzly out, which is the only time you can really expect a short line — a woman gets to the window of the Taco Bus on Central Avenue and places her order with the man in the bus.

"I'd like a ground beef taco in a crunchy shell, with lettuce," she says with all the confidence of someone who has ordered this very meal before.

Just not here.

"We don't have that," the cashier politely tells her.

"Which part?"

He pauses.

"Well, any of those things that you just asked for," he says, maintaining his good attitude and transitioning into an instructional tone as he explains the menu.

He points to the menu and patiently tells her about the nine kinds of meat or seafood (none of them ground) that can go on two kinds of tortilla (neither of them crispy) with a choice of four vegetables (none of them lettuce).

This is no run to the border.

The offshoot of the popular 24-hour Tampa hangout was an immediate hit when it opened in mid February, with demand so high that the waits were reaching past an hour and the restaurant had to shut down one day just to regroup.

Things have been streamlined since those early days. The bus-based kitchen is a little quicker, and when the line gets long, orders are taken along the line, keeping window interaction limited to payment.

So that you don't have a similar embarrassing moment on your first visit, here is a primer:

The simplest meat options are grilled steak (carne asada), grilled pork (puerco asado) and chicken (pollo). The flavors get a little more complex with braised beef (barbacoa) and slow roasted, marinated pork (cochinita pibil). Then they get a little adventurous with pork skin (chicharron) and beef tongue (lengua).

Here is my guide to the taco program: Get the barbacoa and the lengua. The braised beef was deeply flavored and just a little spicy, and one of the best taco fillings I can remember having. And the lengua . . . if you aren't a fan of tongue, it is worth your while to get over it for this taco. It has a rich beefiness with a soft texture than seems incongruous but makes it very interesting.

The grilled meats were all safe choices. And I always want to like the chicharron, but ultimately never do. To me, a pork cracklin' sounds like something that should be crispy, and somehow I am surprised every time it isn't.

Its status as a hipster hangout requires a good selection of vegetarian options. The butternut squash tostada was a great treat: a crisp, flat tortilla topped with an abundance of sweet chunks of squash. Totally worth trying, whatever your stance on meat.

A couple of gripes: The rice, which shows up in burritos and on platters, was disappointing. There was a mix of vegetables in it that sort of overtook the rice in an unfortunate way. And the ceviche was full of good shrimp, but the acidity level was high and required a recalibration of taste buds before moving on.

Chef-owner Rene Valenzuela says he was taken aback by the immediate popularity of the St. Petersburg location.

"It took us 20 years to get that busy in Tampa," he said.

He plans to add a second bus on the property, dedicating one to dine-in and one to takeout. When that happens, possibly in the next six months, he will consider keeping it open 24/7, like the Tampa location.

He is also planning to put up a canopy over the line area to protect customers from the elements. Infrastructure is okay, because while this bus evokes the mobile food craze, it isn't going anywhere. (The company does have mobile facilities for on-site events.)

There has been a lot of hype surrounding the opening of the Taco Bus, and I've been asked if it is deserving. Certainly, this sort of taqueria experience is something that is nothing new to folks in Tampa, north of Park Boulevard in Pinellas County and elsewhere around the country.

I don't care to judge hype-worthiness, but I'm happy to be able to get a proper taco in the general vicinity of downtown St. Petersburg. Even if I have to wait until it's raining to avoid a line.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Taco Bus

2324 Central Ave.,
St. Petersburg;
(727) 322-5000;
tampatacobus.com

Other location: 913 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 232-5889

Cuisine: Mexican

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days in St. Petersburg; 24 hours in Tampa

Details: AmEx, V, MC, Diners; beer, mostly patio seating

Prices: Entrees $2.69 to $8.50

Rating out of four stars:
Food: ★★ 1/2 Service: ★★ 1/2 Atmosphere: ★★

Overall: ★★ 1/2

Review: Taco Bus serves authenticity, variety in St. Petersburg 04/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 2:58pm]
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