Rusty Taco in St. Paul

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s note: Please see the Jan. 12, 2012 update to this review at the end of this text.

What’s a Dallas, TX-based taco place doing slinging its food next to Trader Joe’s in St. Paul? Probably making a pretty good living: The newly opened Rusty Taco is a bang-on brilliant interpretation of authentic taqueria food. The genius of the place is how it has adapted Mexico’s petite cilantro- and onion-garnished street tacos for gringo palates (and decorating senses) without diluting too much of the food’s old-school charm and flavor.

Make no mistake: Nothing we tasted at Rusty Taco rose to the level of (for example) the carnitas at Los Ocampo or the tacos al pastor at Taqueria La Hacienda, but that’s asking quite a bit — and there were some noteworthy successes in the mix.

In addition to sampling Rusty Taco’s breakfast (served daily from 7-11am), we sampled six of the restaurant’s dozen or so taco styles ($2.50 a piece).

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

But first: A quick word about tortillas. Corn tortillas come as the restaurant’s default, which is fine, but they’re not doubled up, which isn’t — Rusty Taco’s tacos have an unpleasant tendency to split, break, bust up, and generally come apart at the seams when you try to eat them. The flour taco option is more durable and probably worth asking for unless you like eating your tacos with a fork. That caveat spoken, here are the tacos we sampled, from worst to best:

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Rajas vegetarian taco was a dud. Despite grilled poblanos, mushrooms, queso fresco, onions, and red peppers, it was staggeringly flavorless; generally speaking, it was a damp, insipid mistake.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Fried Chicken taco violates one of the primary rules of fast food — don’t stuff something breaded into something bread-y — it’s a carb overload. Despite a jalapeno-ranch slaw, the primary tastes of this taco were “sandy” and “hot.” Not terrific.

The Picadillo taco was eerily like a Cornish pasty, albeit a spicy one. The ground beef, onions, and potatoes eerily mimicked the Cornish miner’s lunchtime favorite, and while the effect wasn’t unpleasant, it wasn’t really very taco-like, either.

The Beef Fajita taco was balanced and simple, packing a lowbrow but satisfying steak-y flavor.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Roasted Pork taco was really excellent — substantial, peppery, richly flavored, and well balanced, this is about as hearty as tacos come. Deceptively simple, but rich in taste.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

And the Rusty Taco was terrific. Its achiote pork recalled the flavors of tacos al pastor and the sweet, acidic punch of its pineapple pieces played wonderfully with the taste of the meat. It’s a true winner, and a must-try for new visitors.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Served on robust flour tortillas, Rusty Taco’s breakfast offerings offer the distinct advantage of structural integrity. All four varieties of breakfast taco offer light, properly scrambled eggs and a dusting of grated cheddar boosted by one of four main ingredients: chorizo (which tasted a bit like ground beef and was under-spiced), potatoes (which were warm and soothing, cut into small cubes), bacon (which was a bit dry but pleasantly thick and crunchy), and jalapeño sausage (which offered modest heat and very little grease.) All would be worth ordering again (although the chorizo sort of missed the point), but the breakfast menu could use the following accompaniments: something approximating real coffee, fresh orange juice, and some kind of fruit and / or vegetable side option. Still: tasty stuff.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Finally, kudos to the place for its beer list, which has a bit of local flavor thanks to Fulton and Hamm’s.

BEST BET: The potato or jalapeño sausage tacos for breakfast, and the Rusty or roasted pork tacos for lunch or dinner.

UPDATE, JAN. 12, 2012: A return trip to Rusty Taco for the taco of the same name turned into a screaming disappointment. The pineapple pieces were small and dessicated, the copious cilantro was missing in action, and big, caustic chunks of raw onion overpowered the dry and not particularly flavorful pork. It’s not clear if just the rusty taco has been downgraded or the whole shop has gone south, but at this point, take this review with a large grain of salt.

Rusty Taco
Gringo-friendly tacos in St. Paul
★★☆☆ (Good)
508 Lexington Pkwy S
St. Paul, MN 55105
651.699.1833
HOURS:
Mon-Sat: 7am-10pm
Sun: 7am-9pm
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $5 and upwards, depending upon your appetite

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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21 Comments

  1. What’s up with NO SIDE OF REFRIED BEANS ?

  2. not to split hairs with you, but a picadillo taco is very taco like. A staple in northern mexico where i grew up. I realize most immigrants to MN are from Morelos, and the south in general,and therefore your thought of what mexican food ought to be like is shaped by that regional bias.

    Havent tried the taco, just saying that picadillo is a perfectly mexican filling.

  3. Jim, I must take issue with your assertion that the breaded in the bread is taboo–lightly battered fried fish in a tortilla is the quintessential Baja-style fish taco. If the breading/batter is heavy and dull, that’s one thing, but you can’t categorically diss the genre.

    Also: Filet O’ Fish sandwich. Need I say more?

    Cheers~ Brett

  4. Author

    Brett, even as I wrote this, I was thinking of the bay scallop taco at Sea Salt, which I quite like. It’s less a categorical thing than a “typically…” kind of thing… normally bread in bread doesn’t work (as in this case), but not always.

    Moroco, I didn’t mean to imply that the picodillo was inauthentic — just that I was surprised that it had such a pasty-like flavor profile. You make a great point.

  5. I’m glad this place is here, if only for the fact that I can eat something quick before shopping at Trader Joe’s. I wasn’t blown away by the food by any means, but the price was certainly right.

  6. Good review, the place is fun — but you missed the brisket, which is the BEST flavor (besidesthe rusty). Agreed on everything else. Don’t miss the brisket.

  7. Disappointed to learn that all their food comes from Sysco.

  8. Fern, I was surprised & disappointed about that too. I stopped in for breakfast tacos one day and the entryway was stocked 4 feet high with Sysco boxes. I still got my bacon/egg tacos – and they were good – but I haven’t been back.

  9. It really depends on what you saw on the Sysco boxes. There are a few posters around town that categorically denounce a place because they do business with Sysco.

    But the situation is actually more complicated than that. Is all their stuff PRE-made by Sysco?… or are they purchasing the building blocks of food (spices, produce, raw meat, etc) where they then add value by creating the finished product?

    There is a difference.

    The reality is that a place charging affordable prices has to do business with “middle-man” vendors. They’re not going to have individual relationships with the farmers that made every single ingredient. That is beyond naive.

    The other thing is to understand that it’s just not Sysco that is “The Man”. Did you know that Pizza Luce uses Reinhardt (a low-quality bottom discounter whose quality is far inferior to US Foods & Sysco)? And yet they seem to have
    street cred.

    At the end of the day, it’s what you *DO* with the ingredients.

  10. Eddie, you make a good point about the fact that it matters both what kinds of things they’re getting from Sysco, and what they DO with the ingredients they get. But I would add that, for me at least, it DOES matter where the ingredients come from. Some people (including me) care about the sourcing of stuff– does it come entirely from factory farms far away from Minnesota? Were the animals that produced the meat raised in horrific conditions? There are ways for restaurants, even small ones, to source their ingredients better. (And Sysco actually does some local sourcing, so it’s not just about them)

  11. Eric, your point is well-made and well-taken.

    Restaurants run on crazy-thin margins and is an uber-competitive business. However, if you let the management of Rusty Taco (or any other place for that matter) know that this is a significant issue for you and that you are willing to back it up with your money, they may start taking small steps by introducing some products that satisfy your needs.

    Because of the pricing pressure they’re facing by the majority of their clientele, operators may be risk averse to making those decisions. But if enough customers give voice to the things you are talking about, more operators may be willing to take that risk.

  12. Lito's Way05/02/2011Reply

    Sysco, US Food Service, and Reinhardt (add Restaurant Depot) cater to a commodified level of food service, they don’t represent the sort of tortured artist food ethic that gains the respect of locavores. At the same time, they can be defended for holding prices in competitive check and delivering clean safe ingredients.

    Ingredients, regardless of origin, are only as good as the goofball standing at the stove makes them…. Goofball is a term of endearment.

  13. I stopped in yesterday in between rounds of golf. I thought the tacos were a bad impression of an authentic taqueria. A good taco doesn’t need to come from the American SW as evidenced by Big Star in Chicago (www.yelp.com/biz/big-star-chicago) which has similar prices, but much better ingredients and a better atmosphere.

    I would say Rusty Taco is a step below Chipotle.

    P. Channon
    pchannon.blogspot.com

  14. I live a few blocks away from Rusty Taco and was excited for it to open. I finally made my first visit last week and was not disappointed. While I appreciate the comments about local sourcing and authenticity, what I care about the most is the flavor, and by god Rusty Taco did me right! I had the Beef Fajita, Baja Shrimp and the Fried Chicken. All were delish. I want to swim in a pool filled with the jalapeño ranch! I also got a side of the Pico and consider it as good as the Pico I make, without all of the hassle and prep.

    I see a lot of trips to Rusty Taco in my future. The hardest part will be deciding which of my favorites I want.

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