I first came across Tacos El Rey #5 in Nampa as a fluke, really. We were driving to the coast, left too late, of course, and realized we couldnt hold out to Pendleton or Baker City, Ore., to eat. So we slipped down Garrity Boulevard to grab something fast.
What we discovered was a delight. A weekday buffet (Tuesday-Friday, $7.25) with brightly flavored pork, beef and chicken dishes. Homemade corn tortillas. Authentic menudo. A decadent queso sauce. We set out to eat just one plate then two. Then, sated, we battled sleepy eyes for the next six or seven hours of driving.
The place is nice but unassuming your basic roadside spot, a cluster of booths and tables tucked under the kind of brightly painted walls youve seen time and again in Mexican family restaurants. But every time weve been there, we have gotten one of the last if not the very last available table. All around us, families and couples and groups of working men and women have buzzed in English and Spanish. The servers are quick and bilingual and welcoming.
When youre known to be a food lover in the Treasure Valley, you get one question more than almost any other: Wheres the best Mexican?
For years my answer was Roques on State Street, but then they closed. I ate religiously at El Pueblo, off of Fairview, before it changed hands and names. A few still stand out: El Gallo Giro in Kuna is a destination restaurant. Jalapenos on Overland Avenue is fun and friendly, with a great tequila bar. Campos Market has quick, authentic tacos. And Id be lying if I didnt admit I didnt occasionally crave a Los Betos breakfast burrito with bacon (at all hours of the day or night).
To this panteón de las estrellas I would add Tacos El Rey. Or, more specifically, #5. I cant vouch for the others, but I cant wait to try them.
Some of my foodiest friends now swear all the best Mexican food comes off taco trucks, so they should appreciate El Rey. Half of this small Northwest chain still has wheels, bringing mobile Mexican to towns like Jerome, Idaho Falls, Garden City and Meridian, as well as Woodburn, Ore., and Centralia and Moses Lake, Wash. It all started in Yakima, Wash., in the 1990s, and that first location still ranks 4.5 stars out of 5 on both user-review sites Yelp and UrbanSpoon.
If you have to drive yourself a ways to #5 on Garrity, its worth it, and Ill tell you why: the ingredients are fresh, the meats are cooked to perfection, and the little touches make the meal.
On another visit, we tried the enchiladas verde ($7.99, and my wifes go-to meal when trying a new spot), and the sauce was lively and the chicken moist and flavorful. The healthy sprinkling of crumbled cotija cheese was sharp and gave each bite a fresh authenticity that separated this dish from the same idea at so many family- style Mexican places. I dont know if the other places use that powdery Parmesan straight out of the can, but thats certainly what they taste like. Not here. (And you can pile the real stuff on at the lunch buffet.)
They give you the option of all cabbage on top, all lettuce, or a blend, and the crunch and heft of the cabbage went perfectly with the tart verde chicken.
Offering a perfect flavor contrast were the mole enchiladas ($8.50), presented similarly but strikingly different visually, with dark, red sauce of roasted peppers, chocolate and nuts.
My Mexican cuisine measuring stick is generally adobado, a deeply spiced pork. And while I think the edge still goes to the Azteca truck (formerly Chilangos) that works Downtown Boise (the $4 chile relleno burrito with pork is one of my favorite late-night meals in town), the adobado burrito with the works at #5 was flavorful and more than filling. And it cost a mere $4.99 for a serious plate of food.
Email Gregory Hahn: firstname.lastname@example.org