Fetish foods. We all have them. The kind your mind drifts to in idle moments, the kind you'd squander untold gallons of gas in the name of, the kind your significant other knows to bring you when seeking your forgiveness. • For me, one is the taco. Not the Ortega crunchy shell with the orange-ish ground beef (although I like those, too), but the study-in-simplicity Mexican taco, just a warm homemade corn tortilla, a flurry of crisp-at-the-edges carnitas, then white onion and cilantro. That's it. Maybe a squeeze of lime. • Funny thing is, some of the seriously fetish-worthy tacos in the Tampa Bay area aren't in restaurants per se. The tacos are an afterthought, a side gig, at some of our Mexican groceries and shops.
La Unica Michoacana
Specializing in Mexican paletas (ice pops) and helado (ice cream), this little shop in Tampa was opened a few years ago by Arturo Martinez and his wife, Dailys Bravo. Savory food was a late addition, and in fact there's not much room to hang out and enjoy the goods. Three little tables along the front windows are fit in between the ice cream case and the ice pop reach-in. But you'll want to eat this stuff immediately, so don't do takeout.
There are a handful of fillings: steak with onion and cilantro, chipotle chicken, cochinita pibil (pork with red onion, lemon and habanero — the best one), bistec a la Mexicana (steak with jalapeno, tomato and onion), potato with spicy sausage, and chicharrones en salsa verde (pork rinds in green salsa). These you can have on a taco ($1.86) or in a trio of sopes ($7.47), either way divine.
The tortillas are housemade, warm and pliable and fragrant, as are the sopes, thick, crispy masa cups that you will eat with your hands with mixed success (you will be presented with too many napkins; you will use them all). They make five tamales ($1.86) as well, but they don't have all flavors all the time. If you are handed a warm squeeze bottle of housemade hot sauce, proceed with caution. The contents can cause a hole in the space-time continuum.
Acapulco Mexican Grocery
Not too many blocks away from La Unica, Acapulco Mexican Grocery has a whole wall of pork rinds. It has got snack food and canned goods and a small produce case. You might not even see the cafe in back. And that would be a shame.
My first visit (I was buying corn husks and masa for tamales) was a Saturday, the view of the cafe revealing a whole lot of Spanish-speaking people not speaking and hunching over wide bowls of menudo. I didn't have time for the dusky, spicy-looking tripe soup, a weekend-only offering, but I zipped back another day for tacos ($1.75 and $2) and sopes (three for $8).
The sopes here are wider and not quite as thick, like little crispy masa pizzas on which to heap lengua (beef tongue) or buche (beef sweetbreads). Spring for an extra 25 cents to double the tortilla on your tacos, because the two-ply seems better equipped to handle the generous serving of meat, whether it's the chili-pineapple-inflected pork or the sultry chipotle-fired shredded chicken.
With pumpkin-orange walls and a television tuned to photos of the adjacent grocery stores (an odd choice to show an already captive audience, but the pictures of rows of canned goods are strangely mesmerizing), this is a regular go-to place for Pinellas bargain lunchers.
The beverage case is packed with Jarritos sodas and Jumex juices, yet a nearby dispenser of horchata seems to have lots of takers for its milky, cinnamony allures. Order at the counter and then find a seat at one of eight tables. The menu is broader here, with a full lineup of platters ($7.99 and $8.99), quesadillas (most $5.99), burritos ($5.99) and tacos ($1.75).
Don't get distracted by the tortas (Mexican sandwiches) and fries. You're here for tacos: The Campechano is irresistible, even once you find out that it is crispy pork skin mixed in with lush carnitas (really Mexico's answer to confit, the pork shoulder cooked slow and then fried in its own fat). A few lime wedges provide just the right acidic counterpoint.
A pair of gorgeous tacos for $3.50 or a trio of gorditas for $5.99 (fat masa rounds griddled, split and filled) — as far as fetishes go, I can think of worse.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 892-2293 or on Twitter at @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.