Generally speaking, I tend to shy away from what might be considered "unauthentic" anything. Meaning, I want my matzo balls coming from the hands of a Jewish cook with their Bubbie's recipe memorized, or my Soul Food coming from an African-American who can time their grits without looking at a clock. Similarly, I'd rather listen to most anything than to have to hear a Stevie Ray Vaughn or Kenny Wayne Shepard guitar lick or lyric; a white man playing the blues, well, it just doesn't feel or sound the same. Of course, that's not to say that a white person can't struggle, but, I think you might get my drift here.
I just want the things that are authentic.
And when it comes to "Mexican" food, I tend to stand behind this philosophy and stand firm. Ever since the "gringos" co-opted the food south of the border and made it their own, it's ever more challenging to find and locate the real deal outside of major cities with a large Mexican-American population. In Champaign, we're fortunate to have more than a few, with my favorites being El Charro and Taco Loco. These are taquerias in the truest sense, with joints like Mas Amigos and Guadalajara adapting a more sit-down type of atmosphere. You can get a good taco at all of them though, and for that I am grateful.
So, upon learning about The Taco Shack, south on 45 in the bedroom community of Tolono, Ill., I pretty much wrote it off right away. A quick Google search brought up the name of the proprietor — Kim Barrow — and I knew right away that the food wouldn't be authentic; it would be just a version of what I really like about real Mexican nosh.
But the crux of the business is their salsa production. As it happens, they aren't afraid to stand by it. In fact, they named theirs "Darn Good" Salsa. And to me, that was a bold enough name for me to put the diet on hold for a night and give it a whirl.
The Taco Shack is located on Rt. 45 (what's known as Neil St. in Champaign) in an old convenient store. The sign out front seems temporary, and inside, you get the sense that decor and ambiance are taking a back seat to the food. It's basic, and honestly, that's a good thing. The joint closes at 8 p.m., and this isn't the type of place you take a first date. It's a taco shack, just like the name states, and personally, I found that refreshing.
But before we get to the food, I found another thing refreshing. A sign in the window:
"Gringo's Makin' Taco's"
Despite the creative grammatical errors (which Kim and her staff later joked about and acknowledged as intentional — and I believe them), I was glad to see this. It let me know that they understand. They get it. This isn't their food, and it never will be, but that shouldn't stop them from trying to make it as best they can.
Fortunately for them, and for our hungry tummies, they succeeded in almost every way. The menu is extensive, and you can pretty much get anything there that you'd find at any old "Tex-Mex" restaurant anywhere. Tacos, burritos, nachos, taquitos — all of it. For the sake of research, we decided on a taco with chicken, a taquito filled with pork, and a plate of nachos. Our bill came to just under $13. We both thought that the items could have been priced a little lower, but in the end, we were both full and in 2010, $13 isn't much. Granted, we drink water, so that factors in.
But let's talk about the food.
It's good. No question there. The chicken is real white meat, and though it's not likely local or organic, it didn't come from a bag or pre-cooked chicken pieces either. It was cooked in house, and it tasted like it. The menu even declares that they may not have it based on availability. The veggies are fresh, and the taco shell (I ordered mine hard shell) is fried in-house. While they don't make their own tortillas (they do use El Milagro, some of the finest on the market) they do make their own hard shells by deep frying each one to order. The flavor was nice and light and I didn't feel like I was eating many preservatives.
Same thing with the taquito, the roll was deep fried and piping hot, and served with a side of guacamole. The guacamole was good, with nice sized chunks of avocado throughout. Personally, I like more lime, cumin, onion, and cilantro in my guac, but for a restaurant having to keep up with the flow of customers, this one had a nice flavor and a good texture. Again, it didn't come from a jar, and that counts for more than anything in my book.
The nachos were quite good as well, with real cheddar cheese melted on to the chips, along with all the regular toppings one might imagine. And while I tend to enjoy melted chihuahua cheese, gooey and drippy, all over my nachos, I also appreciated that these nachos weren't greasy or soggy in any way. Each bite was crunchy (the El Milagro chips help that cause) and filled with enough toppings to make it satisfying each time.
Now — the salsa. We asked for ours on the side, specifically because we wanted to really taste the flavors. The staff offered up as much of it as we wanted. And I will concur: it is "darn good" salsa. No question about it. I can't state that it's the best I've ever had (walk across the the border in Juarez and see what I mean) but it really held up to its namesake. Had I not been leaving for out of town for a couple weeks in a few days, I'd have picked up a small container of it to bring home with me. They sell it in their massive refrigerator for around $4 for 16oz. A total steal if you consider that this is house-made salsa, with very few preservatives, if any at all. It's super fresh. And it's got a nice flavor, all three styles: mild, medium, and hot.
I spoke with the owner, Kim Barrow, after we ate, for just a brief moment as she stepped away from closing up shop with the rest of her employees. She was a little out of breath, and for me, that was richly impressive; the kind of restaurant that I want to eat at is the kind where the owner of the joint not only knows how to do everything, but actually does it too, at least within the first year of its existence. She told me that they opened up shop in December of last year, and that business is good.
"The community has really come out for it," she said, reminding me that her breakfast menu has been a hit too, since many people are on their way to work in "the city" in the morning. Barrow moved to the community with her husband, who is a Marine, in 1991 after growing up in southern California, where she learned first hand about the way in which to properly create Mexican food. When asked about why she took the dive from the world of cosmetics (her former profession) to the service industry, her answer was simple: "My friends kept asking me to make them salsa, and told me that I had a good product, so I just decided that I'd turn it into a business." Currently, she is marketing "Darn Good" Salsa to grocery stores and restaurants, and as time goes on she is seeing successes become more and more frequent.
The restaurant is an extension of that success, and with food as good as she is serving, it seems like The Taco Shack and "Darn Good" Salsa should be around for years to come. We ate in the last 15 minutes of the restaurant's business hours, and they were still working to fill orders up until the time they closed. For a town with a population of right around 4,000 (if you consider that in 2000, it was 2,700), a place like this has to be a hot commodity. That city folks are willing to drive 10 minutes south further proves that notion.
Photos by: Justine Fein-Bursoni