The world of lucha libre is one of theatrics. In fact, this form of Mexican professional wrestling translates literally to “free fight” and is characterized by flashy face masks, stretchy metallic outfits, and circuslike aerial maneuvers. It’s thrilling! It’s got swagger. It follows, then, that a Mexican street taco joint called Taco Libre would ooze the same panache, and in a few cases, this fast-casual West St. Paul restaurant hits it just right.
Unlike many small, independently owned ethnic spots in the area, Taco Libre is a polished slice of another world, complete with colorful branding, a slogan, and an Instagram account. It’s big and bright and a bit reminiscent of a Chipotle, but splashed with lots of orange and red, shiny lucha masks, and tongue-in-cheek artistic flourishes. (See also: Bar Luchador in Minneapolis.)
The menu gives equal weight to tacos, tortas (sandwiches), and tamales, with combo-bowl and -plate options if you feel like mixing and matching. And in a serious nod to its clientele, Taco Libre includes four intriguing vegetarian options in its list of proteins (Ever heard of huitlacoche, aka Mexican truffle [or corn smut, to biologists]? It’s a fungus that springs from ears of corn and is known for its high protein content. However, the folks at Taco Libre told us it comes from pumpkin. A mystery for another visit!)
Tacos ($2.75 each) are generous and arrive topped with chopped onions and cilantro (we craved even more). Try one filled with tinga de res, a smoky, saucy beef with a decent kick. We gave the tripe taco a shot based on a positive online review, even though we haven’t met an amazing tripe dish yet. Taco Libre’s didn’t change our minds–the meat still tasted muddy and bland. However, the kitchen did manage to crisp it up nicely, which transformed the off-putting texture. We were way more smitten with Taco Libre’s beautifully moist tamales ($3 each), and the rice bowl is a great value at $8, packed with black beans, cilantro rice, cotija cheese, salsas, and sauteed veggies.
But what really knocked us out? The Machete ($9, above). This is Taco Libre’s heavyweight champ, a javelinlike Man-vs.-Food-style taco that’s more than a foot long and best battled with a friend. Unlike the other menu items, this corn tortilla is made from scratch in the kitchen, and it arrives still warm and glistening from the fryer. It’s stuffed with melty Oaxaca cheese, lettuce, chunky salsa, your choice of protein, and cooling sour cream. Sure, the filling is a little Americanized, but it’s exactly what we wanted from such a giant taco — it was both savory and texturally interesting. The tortilla itself was especially stunning, with a tender crunch and a delightful toasted-corn flavor that held its own against the filling.
Be sure to finish off the Machete with a duo of Taco Libre’s churros ($4), which are feather light and deliciously doughy inside. These sweet treats boast the same crisp and tender contrast as a classic cake doughnut from A Baker’s Wife.
Perhaps the best thing about Taco Libre is that it’s open late late late. So when a Taco Bell craving hits at midnight, check out the more wholesome Taco Libre instead. Your belly will be like, “Gracias.”
Taqueria in West St. Paul
1221 S Robert St
West St. Paul, MN 55118
OWNER: Adrian Ramirez
Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-midnight
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $2.75-$12
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Large lot