alibi online

Free Will AstrologyAlibi's Personals
 
 V.22 No.19 | May 9 - 15, 2013 

Restaurant Review

The Case of the Disappearing Taqueria

Rocka Taco demands to be seen

Manchamantel gives a flavorful kick to the shredded pork carnitas tacos.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Manchamantel gives a flavorful kick to the shredded pork carnitas tacos.

Grass and bare feet. Firecrackers and accidents. Tacos and beer. Here is the short list of classic summer duos. It's not summer yet, but close enough … the heat’s a-coming. Time to pinch shut our eyes, pretend we aren't high desert dwellers and reacquaint ourselves with our favorite street food from balmy, beachy Mexico.

Pork and pineapple make for a savory, sweet combination.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Pork and pineapple make for a savory, sweet combination.

Most of us jealously harbor our own beloved little Albuquerque taqueria, one that we won't divulge to the masses lest it gets trampled to the ground. I present to you the opposite sort of problem in the case of Rocka Taco—a top notch, gloriously cheap taco joint that’s completely underpopulated. Why? Not because it's off the beaten track (Bricklight District by UNM). Not because they're not producing delicious product; it's Matt Nichols' baby, former owner of Gold Street Caffe and the long-lost Fajitaville.

No, it boils down to a more interesting problem. Rocka Taco seems to be up against a psychological phenomenon known as perceptual set and selective attention—psych jargon for seeing what we expect to see and blocking out the uninteresting. Usually these instincts play into a survival technique that serves us well in our stimulus-saturated world, but it can also screw us over.

Shredded beef taco with green chile
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Shredded beef taco with green chile

What do we expect to see at Rocka Taco? Retro Taco, the former occupant of the space. Some of us know Retro Taco. Some of us fail to register Rocka Taco and walk on by. I have no history (checkered or otherwise) with Retro Taco, but apparently some do because the Rocka Taco staff are loudly proclaiming their complete and utter non-affiliation with their predecessor.

They are currently in evangelism mode, giving out cards for free tacos by the handful. Hand me the tambourine, I say. I live two blocks from Rocka Taco, see, and am selfishly concerned for my immediate access to good, cheap tacos. (And a good, cheap taco with beer is hard to come by, since many of the best taco joints in town have avoided the rigors of liquor licensing.)

It seems like a fairly simple formula to figure out what defines a superior taco: quality and freshness of ingredients, generous filling and felicitous melding of flavors and textures. If you can eat it with one hand, it's probably not a good taco. If you don't use your napkin, it's probably not a good taco. If it's overpriced, it's not a good taco; it spits in the face of everything the taco stands for.

It seems like a fairly simple formula to figure out what defines a superior taco: quality and freshness of ingredients, generous filling and felicitous melding of flavors and textures. If you can eat it with one hand, it's probably not a good taco. If you don't use your napkin, it's probably not a good taco. If it's overpriced, it's not a good taco; it spits in the face of everything the taco stands for.

Rocka Taco succeeds on all counts. Their meats (pulled pork, beef and shredded chicken breast) are slow-roasted for up to 12 hours until they utterly surrender to fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth perfection. Their five varieties of salsa are all hand-crafted fresh, in-house: charred tomato chipotle, fresh pineapple, grilled green chile-tomatillo, salsa fresca and manchamantel. All are Nichols’ original recipes from the Fajitaville days.

Shredded beef taco with green chile
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Shredded beef taco with green chile

Nichols is proud of the fact that his kitchen doesn’t use microwaves or freezers. The food is all fabulously at its prime. The lettuce is a deep, summery green. The tomatoes are bright red, sweet and of the cherry variety. The tortillas are fried until they're just crisp enough and lightly crusted with cheese.

Naturally, a place with this much reverence for fresh vegetables also offers a meatless grilled veggie taco incarnated as mushroom, zucchini and yellow squash.

Rocka Taco brings taste of beachy, balmy Mexico to our high desert lives.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Rocka Taco brings taste of beachy, balmy Mexico to our high desert lives.

My favorite salsa/meat combo is the pork carnitas and fresh pineapple salsa. The green chile tomatillo salsa also stands out for its faintly sweet, breathily intense chile flavor. Also worth noting is the vaguely bitter, fruity manchamantel: a fruit and red chile-based salsa from Central Mexico that earned its name from staining many a tablecloth (that’s literally what “manchamantel” translates to). It’s made from scratch the old-fashioned way from the chile pods to the sauce, then pureed with fresh mango, pineapple and apple. But at two dollars a pop (or 3 tacos for $5), there's no need to make recommendations; you can try them all in every combination.

The greatest pleasures in spring and summer are the simple ones. Simplicity at Rocka Taco is a huge part of the appeal. Owner Matt Nichols cites In-N-Out Burger, where the menu consists of hamburgers, French fries and shakes, nothing more, as an inspiration for his concept. Rocka Taco’s decor is minimalist—bright, airy, mostly unadorned clementine-colored walls and a smattering of tables inside and out. They offer local beers (Alien Amber, Santa Fe Pale Ale) and cervezas on tap (Negra Modelo, Dos Equis). The menu is simple: one starter (chips and salsa sampler, $4) two sides (Spanish rice and beans, $7 for a two-taco combo plate with soda, $9 for a combo plate with beer), one entree (tacos, $2 for one or $5 for 3) and one dessert option (homemade chocolate pecan brownie, $2). That's it. That's all. Simple. Beautiful. Unassailable.

So yes, perceptual set blindness can be a shame, as we beeline from here to there like the subjects of that depressing art house film Koyaanisqatsi. That's not what spring is about. Spring is the earth telling us by means of blooming flowers and perfumed air to open our eyes. Open your eyes! Scrounge up some quarters! It's almost taco season.

Rocka Taco

Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday
Vegan and Vegetarian Options: Yes
Vibe: Sum-sum-summertime
Extras: Sidewalk dining, people watching, shrimp taco and mango salsa specials
Price range: $2 - $9

Alibi Recommends: It’s all good
 
Join our mailing list for exclusive info, the week's events and free stuff!
 

  • Select sidebar boxes to add below. You can also click and drag to rearrange the boxes; close using the little X icons on each box. To re-add a box you closed, return to this menu.
  • Because you are not logged in, any changes you make to these boxes will vanish as soon as you click to another page. If you log in, the boxes will stick.
  • alibi.com
  • Latest Posts
  • Web Exclusives
  • Recent Rocksquawk Discussions
  • Recent Classifieds
  • Latest User Posts
  • Most Active Users
  • Most Active Stories
  • Calendar Comments
  • Upcoming Alibi Picks
  • Albuquerque
  • Duke City Fix
  • Albuquerque Beer Scene
  • What's Wrong With This Picture?
  • Reddit Albuquerque
  • ABQ Journal Metro
  • ABQrising
  • ABQ Journal Latest News
  • Del.icio.us Albuquerque
  • NM and the West
  • New Mexico FBIHOP
  • Democracy for New Mexico
  • Only in New Mexico
  • Mario Burgos
  • Democracy for New Mexico
  • High Country News
  • El Grito
  • NM Politics with Joe Monahan
  • Stephen W. Terrell's Web Log
  • The Net Is Vast and Infinite
  • Slashdot
  • Freedom to Tinker
  • Is there a feed that should be on this list? Tell us about it.
    Old Man Markley
    Old Man Markley4.29.2014