September 05, 2017

Restaurant review: Chronic Tacos serves up a meal that surprises

Chronic Tacos

3.5 out of 5 stars

10420 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Breakfast: $3-$7; tacos and more: $2.50-$8.25; dessert: $2; drinks: $2.25-$2.75. 813-374-6800; chronictacos.com.


I’m always a bit nervous as I enter the world of the culinary chain. Clearly you don’t get to replicate your food across the nation unless there’s demand, but most often, chains are more focused on value than finesse. However, since my expectations are low, I’m usually satisfied that the food, while not memorable, is good value for the money. Not every meal needs to soar. Everyday food can be just that — satisfying needs, yet nothing special.

Sometimes, though, I’m pleasantly surprised. New to Tampa, Chronic Tacos is such a case, even with more than 50 fast-casual spots nationwide and three Canadian locations out west in British Columbia. While it’s a “paint-by-number” kind of spread, the food grows out of three generations of Mexican recipes from Southern California that still deliver. And you know the deal: Step 1) Pick your base (taco, burrito, torta, etc), and Step 2) Pick your protein (chicken, pork, veggies, etc). Then the real fun begins, depending on which direction you’ve decided to go.

Choose from three kinds of tasty beans, four distinct sauces, freshly made guacamole and pico de gallo, Spanish or white rice with lime, three grated cheeses, salsa, fajita veggies, tart lime wedges, and on and on. Everything is fresh and locally sourced. Care is taken with each element, and although the flavors aren’t as complex as some local chef-driven Mexican haunts, they’re a step above any mass-produced, fast-casual Mexican I’ve encountered.

Proteins shine. The carnitas is well-seasoned pork shoulder slow-roasted till it falls off the bone. It’s shredded and juicy and perfect on top of a crisp tostada bowl loaded with slightly spicy Spanish rice and creamy black beans.

We opt to try the Tecate beer-battered mahi mahi as a fish taco on a soft tortilla, but there’s also shrimp. Both can even be served sautéed instead of fried. Made to order, the fish is hot, fresh and flawlessly matched with a spicy sauce with the right amount of kick.

The torta option is built upon warm flatbread that we pile with refried beans and marinated, grilled pollo asado, plus a layer of guacamole. It’s delightful. The chicken is juicy, bursting with flavor, while the guac and beans provide a luscious contrast without overwhelming the bird.

There are two unusual specialty items worth mentioning. “Chronic Fries” are essentially loaded nachos made with potatoes instead of corn chips. My crowd chants that they want theirs topped with carne asada and pinto beans. Who am I to resist? The beef shows a flavorful result after being marinated for 24 hours, then seared on an open grill. Juicy nuggets mingle with the cheese and salsa to great effect. Think of this as Mexican poutine.

The other invention is a crispy fried taco filled with mashed potatoes and some guacamole — just because. It’s a lovely contrast in texture and flavor, but don’t delay in taking a bite, as it cools off quickly.

Listed online, the taquitos and flautas haven’t made it onto the Carrollwood lineup. However, burritos (small and large), quesadillas and salads are vehicles for any and all of the proteins and garnishes that tickle your fancy, alongside all-day breakfast tacos and burritos with your choice of chorizo, bacon or veggies. Machaca, the dried meat popular out west that’s featured on the website menu, isn’t available yet.

One the drinks front, there’s the usual soda and water, as well as specialty drinks from Monster and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, sangria, and a range of Jarritos. Here, the beloved Mexican soft drink’s flavors range from fruit punch to tamarind to pineapple.

The restaurant’s lone sweet offering is a circular cardboard container holding eight churro bites standing on end. It’s the ridged fried dough covered in cinnamon and sugar you’ve grown to know and love presented in small, two-bite sticks. Some hungry souls with big mouths may pop a whole one, but you know that comes with your mother’s voice issuing a choke warning inside your head. It’s even possible for those of you whose style is to savor to stretch these minis into four-bite territory. But, on average, two chomps and you’re done. Despite my sweet tooth (I’d like a bit more cinnamon-sugar), they remain a yummy way to end a surprising meal.

Chronic Tacos falls in the Goldilocks zone —where fresh taste and great value are just right.

CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system, or email him at [email protected]

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In torta form, Chronic Tacos' grilled pollo asado is juicy, while the guac and beans provide a luscious contrast.
Chip Weiner
In torta form, Chronic Tacos' grilled pollo asado is juicy, while the guac and beans provide a luscious contrast.
The torta itself is built upon a warm flatbread.
Chip Weiner
The torta itself is built upon a warm flatbread.
"Chronic fries" are essentially loaded nachos made with potatoes instead of corn chips.
Chip Weiner
"Chronic fries" are essentially loaded nachos made with potatoes instead of corn chips.
Think of this one as Mexican poutine.
Chip Weiner
Think of this one as Mexican poutine.
Made to order, the beer-battered fish taco is hot, fresh and flawlessly matched with a spicy sauce with the right amount of kick.
Chip Weiner
Made to order, the beer-battered fish taco is hot, fresh and flawlessly matched with a spicy sauce with the right amount of kick.

Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

At a time when local-based reporting is critical, support from our readers is essential to our future.