3.5 out of 5 stars
2221 W. Platt St., Tampa. Bowls & tacos: $2.80-$9.35; sides: 47 cents-$5.81; drinks: $2.10-$6.54; desserts: $2.80. 813-413-7900, facebook.com/tacodirty.
When potential diners approach the counter to order, a sign (laden with innuendo) clearly proclaims the purpose of your visit: “Taco Dirty to Me.”
As you lower your eyes, a lineup of fresh faces meets your gaze. These black-T-shirt-and-ball-cap-clad folks are your free-spirited partners for the evening’s enjoyment. The choice is completely yours, nearly devoid of limitations. As your eyes survey the colorful array before you, wonderful scents arise — and your mouth begins to water. You want to reach out and touch the orgy of farm-fresh ingredients.
But your mind races with possibilities. Do I stick with old favorites or risk new combinations, formerly unexplored? You sigh with anticipation. Decisions made, you breathlessly proclaim what suits your whim to the guides who serve and satisfy your every appetite.
Finally, what’s your choice to sauce things up? Taco Dirty indeed.
This new Tampa restaurant does Chipotle-style build-your-own meals in the SoHo area, but filtered through the healthy lens of Ciccio Restaurant Group’s Fresh Kitchen with a touch of its Mexican flagship, Green Lemon. As with FK, the focus is on quality ingredients, inventive mashups, a friendly, helpful staff, and enough options that it’s hard to decide what to do.
Ponder the menu from the AstroTurf-lined patio with a fun “raining avocados” mural. When you’ve made up your mind, step in line and make your preferences known. First, are you eating in or taking out? We had a fajita bowl, two snack bowls, and a three-taco platter complete with delectable grilled corn and flour tortillas.
For any bowl, you need a starchy base. Choose from Mexi red quinoa, which has more chew than the softer avocado citrus rice, where the additions are grace notes rather than primal screams. Perhaps the nuttiness of brown rice or the softly decadent chilled avocado and mole noodles strike your fancy.
Next up are veggies, and, like FK, they’re done with care. Citrus Brussels sprouts are beautifully caramelized, and sweet potato hash harnesses all of the goodness that a tuberous root has to offer. Try the red peppers, kale and mushroom mix for a delicious tumble of earthy flavors.
The big decision is which scoop of bite-size protein to incorporate some depth of flavor. Every selection is a tasty treat, whether you go with grilled lime and sour orange chicken, crisp lemon fried shrimp or beefy grilled steak. There’s sweet sautéed pineapple pork for diners with a piggy fetish, too.
“Mexi Things” are garnishes you use to tweak your meal. Colorful pickled red onions or grilled pineapple onion salad provide nice bite and acidity to the flavors, with the pineapple also offering a touch of sweetness. The lime-jalapeño marriage is a flavor profile that’s present in so much Mexican cuisine; a punch of tart citrus and a dash of heat enliven your tongue. You can score these in a corn salad or combined with luscious sour crema.
On the cheese front, Taco Dirty carries crumbly, salty cotija — think Mexican Parmesan — or shredded queso fresco, which is creamier and milder. Then there’s warm queso, the reason why some of us dream of nachos. I mean, what’s not to love?
Your last step, as promised, is to get a bit saucy. Will it be a drizzle of sweet roasted corn purée? How about spicy green poblano? Maybe the tomatoey goodness of roasted salsa? Or perhaps the creamy guac sauce that’s avocado-based yet pourable. Each adds a finishing touch to have you licking your lips. So many combos, so little time.
The restaurant has kept dessert simple. If you must order something sweet, yummy semi-soft chocolate chip cookies are found by the register as you checkout. They feature a dusting of granulated sugar with cinnamon for a delightful, sparkling churro-esque twist.
For cocktails, a couple of frozen margarita-style choices are available from Slurpee-esque machines in two sizes. The strawberry marg is a deep hibiscus red (and on the sweet side), while the pale pink frosé is a refreshing alternative. One companion decides to mix it up with both, proudly proclaiming to have discovered the perfect blend. There’s a shockingly pink dragonfruit limeade as well.
Still need convincing? Try the “Dirty Hour” with $2 tacos, $3 beers and $4 margaritas from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, or the all-day hot and spicy affair on Taco Dirty to Me Tuesday. You know you want to.