Life’s little frustrating moments: You’re watching an earnest worker trying to put together your lunch. He fumbles. She slips. You ask for this. He gives you that. Oops, a fresh bit just hit the floor. You’re glad you’re watching, deeply suspicious that if the deed had gone unobserved, the five-second rule would have come into play.
This is taking longer than it should, and things don’t get better. You want to offer advice. Then you want to walk around the end of the counter and help. But eventually your order gets down to the cash register, where the cashier is glaring at you for holding up the line.
You end up paying the wrong price (but there’s a 50-50 chance the error will be in your favor). Finally you get to your table and discover that what you got was not quite what you asked for. There is no chance in the world that you will go through the ordeal again in an effort to fix it.
The first time this happened at Taco Punk, shortly after it opened in January in Toast on Market’s former quarters, I wrote it off as newbie jitters and deferred a review. After repeated visits, though, I’m concerned that Chef Gabe Sowder’s venture is having problems scaling up from its start as a popular street-taco stand that achieved well deserved popularity over the past year at the Douglass Boulevard farmers’ market and other public venues.
By all rights, Sowder has the chops to make this thing go. A former sous chef at 610 Magnolia, he brings to this venture the kind of culinary creativity and deep understanding of flavors that make 610 great. Pacific cod gains a “secret chili rub.” Smoked beef is braised in artisanal beer with grilled onions and peppers. Crispy duck carnitas comes with roasted pumpkin and grilled corn salsa. The Taj-Ma-Hell offers curried lamb leg, tamarind and onion chutney and cucumber-mint yogurt, all on a taco!
This could be memorable stuff, and better still, it’s all done with a serious commitment to locavore produce and meats and sustainably sourced seafood and fish. Indeed, some local foodies, seduced by Sowder’s skills and the hipster Nulu vibe, are virtually aswoon over this recent arrival.
But I’m having a hard time joining in. Yes, Sowder can do great things with food, but too-often clueless counter service and wildly variable food and prep quality signal problems. When it’s good, it’s very good, but the sum of all its parts too often adds up to “Meh.”
There are about a dozen taco options, some vegetarian, ranging from $3.25 to $4.50 for a single taco or $8.95 to $12.95 for a Punk Platter with two tacos, a side, chips and salsa with your pick of garnishes, assuming you can successfully communicate what you want, not always a sure thing in my experience. Other “light bites” include ceviche ($4.95 small, $8.95 large), soups, salad, chips, queso, guac and more. Fountain drinks, wine and beer are available.
Soft-style tacos are available on flour or corn tortillas or handmade corn tortillas, but I was profoundly disappointed by the latter, a soft, crumbly pad that resembled uncooked pie crust and fell apart when I tried to pick up my taco.
When you get past that, though, Sowder’s kitchen skills shine. We’ve been smitten by the Yucatecan style fish taco ($4.50 single, $12.95 platter), sweet fresh cod, dry-rubbed and grilled, not breaded-and-fried. Grilled adobo chicken ($3.75/$9.95), spice-marinated and grilled, passed muster, as did black-bean-and-cheese ($3.25/$8.95). In fact, anything this place does with black beans scores big. Barbeercoa beef ($3.75/$9.95), long-braised in Goose Island beer into a falling-apart mass, was deeply flavored but a little too salty, and seasonal veggie mole ($3.75/$9.95) was fruity and sweet. Tortilla soup ($3.95/$5.95) didn’t ring my chimes, but the creamy, light guacamole ($2) was fine.
I hope it gets better. There is a lot to like here, not to mention splendid salsas that range in heat rating from one star for mild to six for “Gabe’s Drain Cleaner.”