Tampa’s Taqueria Margarita serves sublime handfuls of old Mexico

They proudly share abuela’s authentic recipes that are homemade with the freshest ingredients.

click to enlarge Elia Maldonado (L) and Chantal Martinez at Taqueria Margarita in Tampa, Florida on Oct. 23, 2020.
Elia Maldonado (L) and Chantal Martinez at Taqueria Margarita in Tampa, Florida on Oct. 23, 2020.

As we all desperately scan our daily social media for even a modicum of relief from COVID-19 malaise, I note a theme among many of my friends who post with resignation. We want to travel again. Daydreams of past glories mingle with imagined bucket list treks. Those of us who have had the luck to experience other lands and cultures know of the inevitable rich and indelible memories that now seem like a mirage.

However, in the shadow of Steinbrenner Field, with the expansive RayJay in the distance and the Pink Pony just a few steps away, the tiny Taqueria Margarita food truck brings an authentic taste of Mexico to Drew Park. It’s a family affair in honor of the late matriarch who is the namesake of the tiny kitchen where Elia Maldonado makes tortillas by hand at 6 a.m. (two daughters help when they’re not at their day jobs).

Taqueria Margarita
4001 W. Dr. Martin Luter King Jr. Blvd., Tampa
Tacos $2.25; sandwiches/entrees $3.50-$11; sides $2.50; Drinks $1-$2.25
Tue-Wed. 11 a.m.-5 p.m./Thu 11 a.m.-6 p.m./Fri 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
813-466-2484; @taqueriamargaritatpa on Instagram and Facebook

These are the entrepreneurial mother-daughters who make America great, working hard for a better life; dad is a well-liked construction worker who knows everyone in this more or less industrial slice of Tampa. They proudly share Abuela’s authentic recipes that are homemade with the freshest ingredients, which instantly recall the pure flavors and aromas of food stalls in the Mercado de Coyoacán (abuela comes from México, Mexico).

click to enlarge The array is mostly a familiar list: asada (beef), pollo (chicken), el pastor (marinaded pork), carnitas (pulled pork), campechano (meat combo), and chorizo (spicy sausage). There are even vegan options. - DAVE DECKER
Dave Decker
The array is mostly a familiar list: asada (beef), pollo (chicken), el pastor (marinaded pork), carnitas (pulled pork), campechano (meat combo), and chorizo (spicy sausage). There are even vegan options.

While the tiny building is modest with just an outdoor picnic table and umbrella, the food evokes the essence of Mexican street food that would not be out of place near Frida Kahlo’s brilliant cobalt blue La Casa Azul. The goal here is not to push boundaries like at Bartaco or Shaker & Peel. You won’t find hibiscus tortillas or glazed pork belly.

Instead, proteins all exhibit maximum flavor unmasked by the condiments we so often mindlessly ladle upon our Mexican cuisine. There are no dollops of sour cream or chunky guacamole to distract from the goodness of the warm soft meat-topped homemade tortillas. Only a few grilled onions and a judicious sprinkling of fresh cilantro accent the meat. Plus, of course, a spritz of fresh lime for extra zip.

The array is mostly a familiar list: asada (beef), pollo (chicken), el pastor (marinaded pork), carnitas (pulled pork), campechano (meat combo), and chorizo (spicy sausage). On some days, there’s decadent and juicy quesabirria served traditionally, as a twice-cooked taco, or Instagram-ready as a tortilla “pizza” with the carne spread between two browned tortillas—and, yes, with a drool worthy consommé for dipping.

What’s special is that each meat is given a chance to shine; its essence is present in your hand and on your palate, which is sublime in its simplicity.

click to enlarge Other menu choices are essentially alternative “delivery” methods: Tortas (on a bun, pictured), huaraches (cheese and bean-filled masa dough, flattened and fried), sopes (thicker and open-face). - DAVE DECKER
Dave Decker
Other menu choices are essentially alternative “delivery” methods: Tortas (on a bun, pictured), huaraches (cheese and bean-filled masa dough, flattened and fried), sopes (thicker and open-face).

Other menu choices are essentially alternative “delivery” methods: Tortas (on a bun), huaraches (cheese and bean-filled masa dough, flattened and fried), sopes (thicker and open-face). I stick to tacos, but the choice is yours.

The family also offers a carne asada entree including rice and refried beans (the frijoles are a neighborhood favorite) plus frequent weekly specials;  (read: quesabirria). Two splendid salsas are offered to spice up the tacos. The salsa roja has enough biting spice to clear your sinuses and lingers on your palate long after you swallow. Fans of heat will be doing a happy dance. Wimps like me, are happier with the mild acidity delivered by tomatillos in the salsa verde. Regardless of whether you are of the asbestos-mouth fire-breathing school or just prefer a pleasant grace note, these sauces let you tweak your tacos to taste.

Esquites (Mexican street corn) is a tall styrofoam cup of deliciousness. You miss the tactile nature of nibbling from a cob, but a big spoonful catches you off guard. The corn is fresh and creamy with cotija cheese balancing spice and acid that makes it sing on your palate. You just want more. The spice is lively without being intrusive; it’s just enough to make it pop.

click to enlarge Esquites (Mexican street corn) is a tall styrofoam cup of deliciousness. - DAVE DECKER
Dave Decker
Esquites (Mexican street corn) is a tall styrofoam cup of deliciousness.

A refreshing and authentic way to quench your thirst is to grab a cold soft drink from the cooler that sits just under the window in front. I lift the lid and reach down into the ice-filled water and pluck out two bottles of Jarritos, Mexico’s favorite. There’s a wonderful range of fruit flavors—strawberry, Mandarin, lime and my picks, pineapple and fruit punch. These sodas are made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup. There’s a great balance between fizz and sweetness; in each case more reserved than most popular U.S. brands. The Fruit Punch looks like Hawaiian Punch but is less cloying and quite refreshing despite its Day-Glo color. Pineapple is a golden yellow, with the tartness associated with fresh fruit present on the finish.

Sadly, COVID-19 forced cancellation of weekend hours (although the family hints at new, expanded hours soon), but you can travel vicariously Tue.-Fri.y midday to rush hour. A mere eight months ago, Taqueria Margarita hosted a private birthday complete with a live mariachi band, another iconic symbol of great Mexican culture. As we patiently wait behind our masks longing to share the communal joy of music to fill our hearts, at least we have access to the authentic tastes of old Mexico to fill our bellies.

click to enlarge You're supposed to dip the quesabirria tacos in the pork broth, but you get the idea. - DAVE DECKER
Dave Decker
You're supposed to dip the quesabirria tacos in the pork broth, but you get the idea.

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About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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