Tops for tacos: El Cotorro excels at meat, seafood and vegetarian versions of Mexican staple

February 23, 2019

In these fractious and often dispiriting times, it’s important to remember that some things today are better than they used to be. Coffee, for instance. Beer, certainly. And tacos. Especially tacos.

Consider all the inventive offerings in Nob Hill alone. You can get jicama duck tacos at Nob Hill Bar & Grill, rattlesnake sausage at Matanza Craft Beer Kitchen, and a host of late-night options at the Last Call.

Of all the Nob Hill spots, though, El Cotorro ? Spanish for “chatterbox” ? may be the most representative of the taco’s Mexican origins.

Approaching the taqueria on Carlisle from the north, you can almost imagine you’ve washed up on some remote beach in the Yucatan. The salmon-colored frontage is a riot of signs and strings of lights underneath a large, slightly skewed image of a parrot. Most of the seating is in the north-facing sunroom, and the small space in front of the counter is, on this day, crowded with lunchtime customers.

Tacos are divided into meat, seafood and vegetarian options. I ordered three: the braised oxtail ($3.85), the nopales ($2.85), or cactus pads, and the fish taco of the day ? in this case, monkfish ($5.50), the “poor man’s lobster.” After my friend ordered the carne asada ($2.85) with a side of cilantro lime rice ($3), we found a table in the sunroom and waited. A few minutes later, a man emerged from the kitchen to inform me that they had run out of the monkfish and were offering ahi tuna as a substitute. What could I say? My first taste of a monkfish taco would have to wait.

Elote is served with lime aioli, Cotija cheese and a dusting of chile powder. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Elote ? or roasted corn ? ($4) came out quickly, charred from the grill, dusted with blood-red chile powder and impaled on a couple of skewers. It’s served with citrusy lime aioli and salty, crumbly Cotija cheese, the Parmesan of Mexico. The kernels of corn are filled almost to bursting with sweet, starchy juice that explodes into your mouth with each bite. The experience might give dainty eaters pause, but the taste is worth throwing caution to the wind, getting yourself some napkins and maybe a poncho and diving in.

When the tacos arrived on a tray, I noticed that the pile of oxtail, covered with cilantro, chopped onion and Cotija cheese, was resting on not one but two corn tortillas, and I quickly found out why. Oxtails render a lot of fat, and some of it bleeds into the tortillas and paper beneath. It’s a delicious taco, rich with beef flavor, but eat it quickly, before the tortillas fall apart and the fat cools.

The nopales taco, served with asadero cheese and crispy green onion, is mostly a textural experience, with the cactus pads inside the crisp coating tasting vaguely like green beans. Both the nopales and the fish taco ? three matchbox-sized pieces of tuna coated with black and white sesame seeds ? benefit greatly from a trip to El Cotorro’s salsa bar, where a sign helps you pair the right salsa with the right food.

My friend spoke highly of the carne asada, flank steak tenderized in an acidic marinade and served under crispy tortilla chips.

El Cotorro offers a rotating selection of aguas frescas ($3) ? basically, fruit, sugar and water. Cucumber lime, one of this day’s choices, was outstanding, the sugar and the faint taste of the cucumber taking the edge off the sour lime.

In an adjoining space, El Cotorro’s heladeria features a selection of Mexican-style ice cream. It’s less fatty and airy than its American cousin; think gelato with Mexican flavors. You can mix and match two scoops in the small cup ($3). I went for contrast, with the tres leches standing by to put out the fire from the spicy Mexican chocolate. The ice cream is superb. Every meal should end here, although I wish they would swap out the tiny spoons for some regular-sized ones.

With its changing menu and variety of sides and treats, El Cotorro has established a beachhead in Nob Hill that rewards repeat visits and makes one appreciate the evolution of the taco, one of Mexico’s great gifts to us.

El Cotorro

3 stars

LOCATION: 111 Carlisle NE, 503-6202, elcotorroabq.com

HOURS: 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.- 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Monday