Rene Valenzuela is a smart restaurant owner. His Taco Bus is still the toast of Tampa taco fans, drawing crowds to the restaurant's funky, formerly portable atmosphere and well-executed takes on tortilla and fillings. He expanded his empire into Plant City a few years back with the first Taqueria Monterrey, and followed up with another near USF last year. On the surface, the newer spot is built on the same formula as Taco Bus — tacos, and plenty of them — which might seem like a questionable business tactic since the Bus pulls in business from all over Tampa. Valenzuela, however, knows that creating a unique identity for Monterrey is all in the details.
Like the salsa bar parked smack dab in the center of the dining room. There are about a dozen different sauces and salsas that range from creamy tomatillo to classic tomato, each different enough to appeal to a different palate, each made in-house from fresh ingredients. There are also jalapenos and onions marinated in pineapple vinegar, which is also made in house thanks to the fruit left over from the restaurant's fresh pineapple drinks.
Monterrey also makes its own fresh corn tortillas while the Bus buys in commercial versions. The quality of the tortillas, at Valenzuela's flagship restaurant has always bugged me, so I assumed he'd be shipping the homemade version from Monterrey to raise the bar. Not so.
"The Taco Bus tortillas have other qualities, they're sturdier," says Valenzuela. "They have a lot of take-out business, and by the time fresh tortillas get there they're mush." I can understand that. It also makes me realize that my allegiance is already moving from the Bus to Monterrey, and not just because of the tortillas. Monterrey's cow intestines have bought my loyalty.
The Bus still works out of the mobile kitchen parked out back, which means options are strictly limited by the lack of space in the kitchen. As a traditional restaurant, Monterrey is able to serve a wider variety of taco fillings, which they're also more than happy to stuff into a burrito, quesadilla, torta or tostado. By wider, I mean a good dozen for carnivores and a half-dozen for vegetarians or vegans. And none is better than the tripe.
Cut into small rings and given a mighty sear on a flat-top griddle, Monterrey's tripe is caramelized and sweet, each bite crunchy and chewy in turn, easily one of the best intestine preparations I've ever eaten. If you have a problem with eating internal organs, give your friends permission to order it without telling you. Or just swallow your culinary foibles and get on with eating a truly delicious part of the common cow.
Other standouts include tender head meat given a quick crisp on the griddle, pork belly infused with rendered fat and — surprisingly enough — stewed and shredded chicken doused in green tomatillo sauce. The restaurant's homemade chorizo is served ground and mixed with gooey cheese, a real treat as long as you order just with this intensely salty, fatty filling.
Monterrey's beef tongue and pork al pastor are also tasty, if typical, but the pork and cactus combination is doused in a blandly sweet tomato sauce that seems baffling considering the powerful flavors here. That carries over to the vegetarian cactus taco, as well as the chewy grilled tofu, and the beans and avocado. Considering that Valenzuela has been making a conscious effort to accentuate the healthier aspects of his food, while expanding vegetarian and vegan options, the boring options on that side of the menu are disappointing.
But you can rescue your healthy side from those lackluster options by ordering one of Monterrey's new deep-fried flautas stuffed with a variety of meat or potatoes. The poblano cream sauce is rich and tasty, and deep-frying is always a safe option for vegetarians. Fat equals flavor, sometimes.
Valenzuela also plans to add enchiladas to Monterrey's growing menu, something the restaurant already serves off the menu to people in the know. You can't get those at the Taco Bus, either.
So maybe he's right, maybe his two restaurants aren't in competition with one another. Even though I prefer Taqueria Monterrey, I can see why I might head over to the Taco Bus instead. What if (or when, more likely) I get hungry in the middle of the night, for instance? Valenzuela has me covered: As of two months ago, the Taco Bus never closes, dishing out tacos 24/7/52. I'll eat to that.
During more reasonable hours, however, Monterrey will be my first choice.