Taqueria El Rey does serve fine tacos, filled with meats that range from chorizo to cow cheek; and you’ll find a full repertoire of stock Mexican-restaurant items on the menu: burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, and huevos rancheros as well as agua frescas to drink and churros for dessert. But there is more. El Rey also is a carniceria — butcher shop — that provides the restaurant kitchen with terrific beef for carne asada, steak a la Mexicana, and crunchy-skinned breaded steak that is a borderlands cognate of chicken fried steak.
Many of the familiar-sounding dishes are something special. Guacamole casero is not just homogenized avocado paste. It is an ensalada crudo of avocado chunks, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and bits of hot pepper. It is suited to a fork, although the hunks are small enough that careful scooping with a tortilla chip will in fact shovel up a precarious mouthful. The salsa bar that is common in Mexican restaurants is uncommonly bountiful, offering nearly two dozen different salsas, garnishes, and condiments to which diners help themselves. Above the bar is a crib sheet letting customers know the heat level of each item.
Not everything is strictly Mexican. In fact, a whole section of the menu is titled “Gringo Specials” and features such Mexican-accented dishes as chimichangas, taco salad, nachos, and a cheese steak burrito. And what about the “Torta Cubana”? A distant cousin of the classic plancha-pressed Cuban sandwich of pork, ham, cheese and pickles — but listed as a Cuban-inspired sub — it goes far beyond the traditional Cuban formula to become an astonishing polyglot Dagwood. (Reader Andrew Katz noted that such a sandwich is, in fact, a Mexico City specialty.) A long buttered and toasted-crisp loaf comes loaded with — are you ready? — breaded steak, two split wieners, a pair of fried eggs, ham, cheese, garnishes and condiments. It’s a wild combo that even when attacked with careful utensils soon becomes a big (yummy) pile of ingredients to pick, pluck, cut, and fork up.
Sopaipillas are New Mexican, not Mexican, but here they are. Or I should say, here it is, as dessert. Instead of the Land of Enchantment puffy fried breadstuffs that usually accompany meals, Taqueria El Rey presents a single crisp-fried pastry disk drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s a challenge to retrieve from the plate because the pastry is flaky-crisp and the ice cream is melting smooth, but when you do get a good ratio of both items on a spoon, it is a marvelous mouthful.
Located in a nondescript Augusta shopping center, Taqueria El Rey is big, bright, and boisterous, humming with the high spirit of customers who all know they are on to a very good thing.