2233 Park Ave., Detroit
You could argue that Detroit didn't need another taquería. We've got plenty, many of them hewing to their Mexican roots. But then, the west side of downtown was still taco-less. And what's to stop anyone, especially Sean Harrington of the neighboring Centaur Bar and Town Pump Tavern, from opening his own version of fast food in his own backyard, and keeping it open into the small hours for late-night post-tipple scarfing?
Hot Taco, which opened quietly Jan. 2, is kind of hot right now. Dinnertime on a recent Thursday saw every seat filled. Even if a single Hot Taco costs twice to nearly three times as much as a Mexicantown taco five miles west, its hours and its primo location behind the Fox are good reasons for folks to try it. Those anxious about the price comparison can order the three-tacos-for-$6 deal.
I'm guessing that Harrington is either going to improve the quality of his tacos, which are uneven right now, or bend them further toward American tastes. Already most of the tacos carry cheese (unlike in Mexicantown), and diners can choose either flour tortillas or corn, which has more flavor. (Many flour tortillas taste like library paste, only blander; comforting for folks raised on Wonder bread.)
Not that Hot Taco should compete with Mexican-made tacos for authenticity. That would be silly. But I'd suggest the tacos do need to taste fabulous. Some of them are getting there.
It's quite cold inside Hot Taco — everyone kept their coats on when I visited — so that could be why Harrington's cooks don't trust their tacos to the restaurant air but wrap them in tinfoil, labeled in Sharpie, as if for carry-out. They use plenty of cilantro and red onion on all (check and check) but add Muenster to most, and then a variety of salsas, depending on the meat: salsa verde for chicken, mango for pork, pico de gallo for steak.
My favorite was the grilled tilapia taco, served with both salsa verde and pico de gallo. It was a lot of sauce per fish chunk, but not too much, and the grilled fish held up against the spices. Shrimp, on the other hand, had a strong chemical taste, not just on my first visit on Day 5 but again on Day 17.
Barbecued pork was a little sweet. The house-specialty marinated chicken, roasted in-house and treated to a dry rub, was good and spicy, and is diners' most frequent selection. Chorizo, oddly described as "classic ground Mexican pork," didn't have a lot of character.
Burritos are of the kitchen-sink variety, with all the taco stuff plus rice, beans, avocado and sour cream, rolled in an unwarmed wrap. I'm really not qualified to comment on this U.S.-style burrito. The best burrito I ever ate was in Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, in northwest Mexico, on Jan. 2, 2012, and its most prominent ingredient was scrambled eggs. Harrington will be bringing on a breakfast burrito, too, with eggs and chorizo and beans — perfect for after-hours.
Harrington says he's not trying to reinvent the taco trucks of southwest Detroit — rather the taco shacks of the Baja peninsula. And how many of his patrons will have been to Baja, to compare? At the same time, he won't be bound by convention: "When you find pineapples are cheaper by the dozen at Eastern Market this summer, we'll whip out pineapple tacos."
Drinks at Hot Taco are cheaper than most, a dollar for pop from the fountain or $1.50 for Jarritos or Mexican Coke in a bottle. The rows of brightly colored Jarritos lined up behind the counter provoke curiosity, and maybe everyone will try them at least once. A few sips of a bottle of mandarin and of an alarmingly neon-chartreuse lime were all I needed to remind me of their chemical origins.
The plan, later on, is to serve Mexican beer in cans, and maybe shots of tequila. Before winter's over, Mexican coffee with the cream and sugar mixed in will be on tap, and Harrington has ambitions to serve Mexican hot chocolate with cinnamon too, though that's more of a challenge.
Hot Taco could be a pretty inviting space once it gets warm, with stools along the floor-to-ceiling windows on Park Street, so you can check out who's wending their way over from the Centaur or Cliff Bell's. Before long you'll be able to place your order through your smartphone — though they don't do that in Baja.
Hot Taco is open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.