Back in the day, the only place you could score a taco was at a taco truck or a Mexican restaurant. But all this has changed, because accomplished chefs are now adding a sprinkle of global nuance at trendy taquerias in urban settings.
The ball started rolling on this idea about a decade ago, when Korean taco trucks started appearing up and down the West Coast, helping to push tacos in the direction of the Pacific Rim. Other upscale taco shops prefer to stay in the Latin world, yet with a tasty twist on traditional conventions. Either way, it’s safe to say that tacos have entered the realm of high cuisine, so to speak.
In Boise, the culinary trend has caught on, especially with the recent openings of The Funky Taco, Madre Boutique Taqueria and a new downtown location for a longtime favorite, Calle 75 Street Tacos.
Let’s take a look at these places.
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Co-owners and founders Justin and Sheri Archambo started out a few years at the Boise Farmers Market, where they hawked newfangled tacos and such from a converted 1961 Airstream trailer. After earning a loyal following, they picked up some new business partners (Tom and Amy War) and decided to venture into a brick-and-mortar concept.
The stylish eatery recently debuted in the impressively renovated space that once was home to the Mongolian Grill, at the corner of Bannock and 8th streets. To say the place is hip would be an understatement. In terms of design considerations, The Funky Taco goes with a blue color palette inside and out. And it’s hard to miss the impressive wood drop ceiling and hand-blown glass lanterns that dangle above the long bar.
Right above the comfy, blue-upholstered booths, there’s a row of pictures of dead rock stars — Joplin, Bowie, Winehouse and Prince — with colorfully tattooed faces. Cool music constantly lingers from the overhead speakers, and live bands play in the graffiti-painted loft on some nights.
For those in an al fresco mood, the place has you covered with a big door that rolls up in the front, unifying the patio seating with the inside space.
As for the food, head chef Justin Archambo’s menu ventures into the flavor profiles of Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, regional spots in Mexico and the American South. Plus, the kitchen goes out of its way to make sure to source plenty of locally produced foodstuffs.
All taco plates (two per order) start with a base of house-made flour tortillas, lightly smoked to order with sweet-smelling cherry wood. While the prices might seem a little high, keep in mind that these tacos are big and loaded with nuance.
People first got a taste of the Macho Tacos ($11.25) at the Boise Farmers Market. So it makes sense that these tacos would make the cut on the brick-and-mortar menu. It all starts with brisket that’s slowly braised with ancho peppers and dark-brew coffee, giving the tender shredded beef much added complexity. The meat then gets heaped on two aromatic tortillas with house-made red salsa, julienne carrots and cilantro sprigs, finished with a zigzag of lime crema.
The Piggy Stardust tacos ($10.75), a riff on David Bowie’s alter ego, lean in the direction of the Yucatan Peninsula. Two tortillas are hit with mounds of sweet and spicy pork (roasted in banana leaves), pickled red onion, cilantro and lime crema, served with handful of crunchy pork rinds.
Thaico Tacos ($10.75), as the name suggests, borrow inspiration from Thailand. These tacos are built with tender chicken thigh meat (slow-cooked with scratch-made red curry infused with coconut milk), crispy chicken skin, gingery slaw, purple-stemmed basil, shaved radish and creamy sesame aioli.
Besides tacos, diners can also get appetizers, quesadillas, sides and healthy salads.
The Funky Taco pours craft brews on draft, Mexican beers and affordable wines.
801 W. Bannock St., Boise
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.
Madre Boutique Taqueria
What happens when a classically trained chef opens a taqueria? Chances are you will get hybrid tacos that borrow style points from a bevy of global influences. This is pretty much what’s going on at the new taqueria in the up-and-coming Lusk District near Boise State University.
Chef and owner John Cuevas and his wife, Julie, had envisioned opening an eatery that offered an out-of-the-ordinary taco experience when they moved to Boise from Southern California.
The stylish, fast-casual eatery boasts a modern décor that favors cool-blue hues and retro-looking tile work. There’s also a small patio and an indoor bar area — both good spots to hang out for a spell while noshing on ingredient-driven starters, entrée-size salads and tacos, chased with a pint of craft brew or a chilled bottle of imported cerveza.
Madre keeps a base of a la carte signature tacos that anchor the menu, while the rest of the lineup stays in dynamic flux, giving the kitchen staff ample room to take whimsical liberties with the almighty taco. It’s not about popping open cans here. Instead, Cuevas constantly produces scratch-made taco accompaniments such as velvety cheese sauces, bright slaws and freshly made salsas — ranging from fiery to mild on the spice scale.
The chicken tinga taco ($4) is anchored in Mexico with a freshly made white corn tortilla enveloping tender, shredded chicken (braised with chipotle and other spices), crumbled queso fresco, tangy green salsa, pickled red onion and a dollop of citrusy guacamole.
Continue down the Mexican path with the Ensenada fish taco ($5). Cuevas changes the fish weekly based on what’s fresh at the time. One day, a corn tortilla came filled with lightly blackened pieces of flaky salmon smothered with red and green cabbage confetti and a squiggle of piquant crema, next to a lime wedge for a proper spritzing.
The spud and chorizo taco ($4) is one busy nosh, and it boasts obvious Idaho inroads. A corn tortilla encases crispy little jo jo potatoes, pieces of smoky chorizo sausage and verdant jalapeno pesto, finished with minced tomato salsa (mojo) and bias-cut scallion.
Ordering a mushroom taco ($4.50) will get you a corn tortilla stuffed with sautéed crimini and shiitake mushrooms mingled with silky queso fundido (cheese sauce), crunchy bits of bacon and a tenuous drizzle of smooth red salsa with a fiery kick.
MADRE BOUTIQUE TAQUERIA
1034 S. La Pointe St., Boise
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
Calle 75 Street Tacos
The food at Calle 75 stays rooted in regional Mexican cuisine, albeit with a modern twist. (Sorry, no Korean tacos here.)
Owners Mike and Rosie Weems have had much success over the years with their mobile-food business and food-court location at The Village at Meridian. So when the Golden Phoenix Oriental Express spot — kitty-corner from The Record Exchange — became available, the Weemses jumped at the chance of going brick-and-mortar in Downtown Boise.
They spent several months renovating the rundown space. The kitchen itself is in the same spot, but it’s now open for public view, right in front of the long bar bedecked with a row of high-back stools.
The rest of the interior design shows natural tones and an exposed rafter ceiling. The outside of the building boasts a bold black-and-white paint job, and the Weemses hired a local artist to paint a colorful, graffiti-like mural that depicts food images on the alley-side of the building. There’s even a sidewalk patio so you can chillax on summer nights.
Under the direction of head chef Tito de la Garza, who went to culinary school in Guadalajara, Mexico, the menu received an expansion compared to what’s dished up in Meridian.
Most notably, the kitchen staff makes its own organic white and blue corn tortillas daily, using a volcanic-stone grinder that pulverizes the dried heirloom corn into fragrant masa dough. Almost everything else here also gets made from scratch, including a gamut of red and green salsas.
Street-style tacos are obviously the name of the game, but the menu gets bolstered with torta sandwiches, burritos and appetizers such as house-smashed guacamole, ceviche and Oaxacan-style queso fundido. Wash everything down with an inventive Latin-inspired cocktail, a cold Mexican bottled beer or one of the many local craft brews on draft.
Back to those tacos. Diners can mix and match from a list of Street Tacos (two for $7; three for $10) or Specialty Tacos (two for $8; three for $11).
Treat yourself to the al pastor del trompo, which is achiote-marinated pork that’s rotisserie-cooked on a spool like gyro meat, with smoked bacon and fresh pineapple. The tender and aromatic pork — carved to order — speaks for itself and ends up on a thick tortilla with cilantro sprigs, chopped white onion and a lime wedge.
Another good pick from the Street Tacos is the pollo asado, a corn tortilla simply topped with spice-rubbed, grilled chicken thigh meat and chunky pico de gallo.
Noteworthy Specialty Tacos include Baja fish tacos and Steak & Swine, an amalgam of grilled carne asada (marinated flank steak), scratch-made chorizo sausage, cilantro and chopped onion on a warm tortilla.
As for the fish tacos, pieces of tilapia get dusted with a spicy seasoning and lightly grilled, and then they go on a tortilla and get smothered with pico de gallo, cabbage chiffonade, Baja-inspired chipotle crema and garlicky aioli flecked with cilantro.
You would be remiss if you didn’t tag on a side of charro beans ($3.50), a small bowl of stewed pinto beans thickened with lots of smoky bacon.
CALLE 75 STREET TACOS
110 N. 11th St., Boise
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Statesman reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org.