First of all, I apologize for being such a slacker when it comes to taking photos while dining out. I try to compensate for my lack of visual arts skill with scintillating prose. [Smirk.] My New Year's blog resolution is to take more pictures. We'll see how that works out.
That said, after you read my profound remarks about Taco Bus, check out the link I am posting to another blog, a photographer's blog - a really talented photographer, if you ask me. I don't know him; I just happened to look at his recent post about eating at Taco Bus and was amazed by his photos of the place. Very nice. With pictures like those, who needs my amateur attempts!
Okay, now for the best cheap eats you will find in this town, and not just cheap but ranking up there with the most flavorful.
My fun and fabulous niece, Empress Ann, was visiting this week and we got a hankering to try the renowned Taco Bus. Empress Ann grew up in Land O' Lakes and went to USF but had never heard of, nor dined at, Taco Bus. In almost nine years of Tampa residency, I hadn't eaten there, either. Son of Hubmeister has, though, and that picky child loves it. He told me, "Mom, you've got to go there."
It was high time I headed over to E. Hillsborough Avenue to sample the Mexican food I had read and heard so much about. Son of Hubmeister said it's easy to miss the turn, so I thought it would be more difficult to find than it was. Shortly after getting off I-275 at Hillsborough Avenue East, a sign for Taco Bus parking leads you directly to the restaurant/bus, which, by the way, is open 24/7.
Bear with me as I attempt to describe the unusual setup: Picture, if you will, an outdoor patio sandwiched between an enclosed restaurant and a beat-up old bus - all of which are attached and surrounded by a rough-around-the-edges urban landscape. The bus, similar to a food truck, serves walk-up customers who can take their food to go or find a place to plop down on site. Shoot, nobody would blink an eye if you tailgated at your car, except they might be hovering for your spot.
The lot was full, so Empress and I did some hovering ourselves. Customers here come and go pretty fast. The place was busy, with working guys lined up at the bus, all the outside tables taken and only a few seats remaining inside.
Newbies to Taco Bus protocol, we walked to a counter inside the restaurant and asked if we should order there or at a table. It doesn't matter. They are flexible at Taco Bus. We ordered from a menu at the counter and took a seat at an empty table. The waitress brought our drinks and, a few minutes later, our food arrived in little paper-lined baskets.
I had the lunch "meal deal" featuring two tacos with choice of filling, refried beans and rice. A great deal for $7.50. Taco fillings of your choice are enveloped in warm, pillow-soft corn tortillas, and topped with diced farm-stand tomatoes (not the impostors you see at the grocery store right now), mild white cheese, red onion, shredded cabbage and fresh cilantro. I had one pollo (chicken) and one barbacoa (stewed beef) taco. Both meats were seasoned well and packed with flavor.
The freshness of the ingredients is what slaps you in the face.
The refried beans were unlike any version I have ever tasted, and I think after eating these, that canned beans are all I have ever received in any American (a.k.a. Tex-Mex) simulation of a Mexican restaurant. These were creamy with a slight sprinkle of finely grated white cheese on top, not a dry, clumpy mass of goo covered in a blanket of melted Cheddar cheese.
The orange-tinged Mexican rice, dotted with green peas, was also a winner. Oh, and I can't forget the salsa. Two big squirt bottles are on each table, one containing a mild red tomato salsa and the other, a hot green condiment of Mexican love. The lip-tingling green one was my favorite.
Empress Ann had a carne asada torta and a side of Mexican rice. The rice side could have fed a family of four. Empress gave high marks to the torta (sandwich) of diced grilled steak, refried beans, and taco veggies and tried her best to down that gigantic plate of seasoned rice.
I had been under the impression that dining at Taco Bus would be like camping out, but inside dining was perfectly comfortable with its sunny-yellow walls and peppy Latin music providing a cheery backdrop for authentic, excellent Mexican food. This is a mood-lifter of a place to grab a quick bite with a friend or to dine alone. My only regret is that I didn't discover it sooner.
Verdict: A busload of magical Mexican food.
Want to see what it looks like? Here's the photographer's link:
913 E. Hillsborough Ave
Tampa FL 33604