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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gringo-friendly tacos in St. Paul
508 Lexington Pkwy S
St. Paul, MN 55105
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $5 and upwards, depending upon your appetite