If you were wondering whether or not good things happen in the communities just outside Champaign-Urbana, you can stop any time now.
Taco Loco, open since September of last year on Town Center Blvd next to the Regency Beauty Institute, isn’t all that new of an endeavor for owner and manager Sandro Cuellar — he’s been at it since 2004. But before a few months ago, you’d never know unless you made the trek 10.8 miles down I-74 West to Mahomet, where his authentic Mexican taqueria has thrived for the past four years.
It did so well, in fact, that people started driving there from “the city” to get their taco fix.
“Finally, enough people said to me, ‘You gotta come open in Champaign. It will do well. It will do great.' So we decided to do it. It’s going great. Just like they said,” Cuellar tells me as he serves me a glass bottle of Coca-Cola. It’s imported from Mexico. You can taste the difference, without question. These are made with cane sugar.
The interior of the restaurant isn’t half bad either, considering that we are in a strip mall on North Prospect Ave. The bright yellow walls are adorned with traditional Mexican décor, and there is plenty of seating for you and twelve of your closest friends to enjoy this delightful Mexican food.
Yes. Mexican food.
What passes as Mexican in the oft-confused Midwest is actually a version of Tex-Mex, although that is generally giving it too much credit. Perennial winners of “Best Mexican Restaurant” are false representations in my estimation.
Cuellar confirms it.
“The only other place in town that serves real Mexican food is El Charro.” And he’s right, the Mexican grocery serves as half a restaurant, too. You can check out Paul Young’s review of El Charro here.
Cuellar is a native of Chicago, where you can find hundreds of taquerias (which translates literally to “taco shop”) spread out through the city: north, south, east and west. They are everywhere.
His family owns grocery stores and liquor stores, but Sandro is the first to branch out into the realm of food service. The Cuellars originate from Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo Leon. It’s a massive city with almost four million residents in its metro area. By comparison, Chicago has over nine million.
That’s a far cry from the town of Mahomet, population 6,250, where Taco Loco got its start.
“We wanted to open in Monticello, because that is where I was living at the time,” he says, while politely explaining something in his native Spanish to an employee, “but the timing just wasn’t right.”
“We found a space in Mahomet and we decided to go for it. We didn’t want to fizzle out too fast. We started small and grew from there.”
And that’s a good thing, because this authentic Mexican food is the real deal. Prices are reasonable, with tacos coming in at $1.90 a pop, or a set of three with rice and beans for just under seven bucks. These are real tacos, served on small masa corn tortillas and filled with simple ingredients: meat, onion, cilantro. You can choose from three different types of salsa — the verde is this writer’s pick for best in town — if you want to provide a little kick. The burritos are filled with fresh ingredients like onion, cilantro, tomato and a choice of seven different kinds of meat, from basics like carne asada to more traditional ones including lengua. They are so big that they offer a medium size burrito for a lower price. But you should just get the regular-sized one and save half for tomorrow.
Our order of Nachos Supreme was perfectly filled with well-spiced ground beef and four different kinds of cheese, including the traditional Chihuahua-style that is so ubiquitous and popular at Mexican restaurants. Each chip was pretty well covered, the benchmark for a good plate of nachos. Personally, I am a bigger fan of the traditional recipe: chip, cheese, jalepeno pepper slices with sides of guacamole, salsa and sour cream if one so chooses. But these suffice nicely.
The horchata was the only real disappointment. A bit too watery, it could stand to be a little more flavorful, but it certainly wasn't bad.
With business going so well, despite the economic downturn, Cuellar says he has plans to keep expanding. “Savoy,” he says without hesitation. “That’s where we are going next. Maybe by the end of this year. Maybe 2010. We’ll see.”
As far as I see it, he should expand to Urbana, as well. As a lover of all things traditional at a taqueria, it is a nice respite from the myriad choices of poorly crafted “Mexican” restaurants out there. Here’s to hoping Cuellar adds a goat stew on the menu. Then, I’d really be in heaven.