Years ago, as a college student making nightly tramps through downtown Portland, I always found myself craving the same thing around 9 p.m.: Taco del Mar.
Maybe it was the irresistible appeal of munching Mexican food on a city street corner.
It might have been the size of Taco del Mar's mammoth burritos, large enough to satisfy even the most ravenous 20-something.
Or perhaps the draw came from the eatery's easy-on-the-pocketbook prices.
Whatever the reason, I've always held a soft spot for Taco del Mar's fish tacos and Mission-style burritos.
So when I found out that the Seattle-based fast-food chain had set up shop on the Central Coast, I knew I had to visit — if only for old time's sake. Taco del Mar has been open in Paso Robles for about a month, in Arroyo Grande for almost six months.
No longer a secret
I interpreted the busy lunch crowd at Taco del Mar in Paso Robles as a good sign.
Located in The Crossings shopping mall off Theatre Drive, Taco del Mar keeps the surfer spirit alive with tropical touches like a table topped with a palapa-style palm frond umbrella, a long counter shaped like a surfboard and a speckled plastic manta ray. Reggae music plays in the background.
There's even a painted signpost with directions to area hot spots -- Hearst Castle, Lake Nacimiento and "El Paso de Robles."
My fellow diners, however, seemed less interested in the décor than returning to shopping or working at Target, Ross Dress for Less and Orchard Supply Hardware.
I joined the order line.
Lots of food
A trip to Taco del Mar wouldn't be complete without sampling fish tacos ($6) stuffed with cheese, cabbage, pico de gallo and two breaded-and-fried Alaskan cod filets. Flaky and warm, the white fish was surprisingly good.
A burrito stuffed with breaded and fried shrimp ($5) didn't hold up under scrutiny.
This time the breading reminded me of another fast-food chain: Long John Silver's. Grilling the seafood might have worked better.
Of course, Taco del Mar isn't a fish-only joint. I also sampled tacos filled with shredded braised chicken ($6). The restaurant's menu also features pork mole, shredded and ground beef and even a vegan option.
Not only was the chicken tasty, but it compared favorably with Taco del Mar's competitor across the parking lot, El Pollo Loco.
As with the fish tacos, the flour-tortilla tacos came with a side dish of creamy refried beans and Spanish-style rice that, although rosy, didn't have much flavor.
Chowing down on a vegetarian version of Taco del Mar's massive burritos ($6), I remembered why Taco del Mar was such a popular late-night haunt.
A taco stand that truly understands the meaning of "jumbo," Taco del Mar piles on the beans, rice, meat and salsa with a dollop of sour cream and guacamole. Their tortillas — flour, wheat, spinach and tomato — could probably serve as throw rugs.
I've had disappointing experiences with the way some local Mexican eateries skimp on the spices, so when offered a choice, I turned up the heat.
Here's the good news: When Taco del Mar staffers say "hot," they mean it. They slavered the burritos with a smoky, spicy sauce that had me reaching for my soda, a welcome change from the tame salsas others peddle.
In contrast, the tortillas themselves came dangerously close to cold — perhaps because of the haste with which they were prepared.
I wondered if adding sour cream and guacamole cooled down some of the dishes.
A few days later, I headed to Taco del Mar's more spacious location in Arroyo Grande and took in the attractive muted color scheme of terra cotta, deep blue, lime green and tan.
A corrugated metal awning hung over the order counter, complementing walls decked with surf photos and metal signs warning, "Las Focas Muerden" (The seals bite).
This time I opted for Taco del Mar's side dishes, picking simple quesadillas with a cheese blend and pico de gallo ($3). The warm tomato tortilla added a subtle zing of flavor.
Cheese nachos ($5) proved disappointing — the generous stack of beans, cheese, salsa and thick corn tortilla chips was so large it could easily be shared by two or even three people, but the menu promised six layers; I only counted four and longed for more variety.
I'll be back
Taco del Mar may have changed from the mecca of my college days. While the Arroyo Grande employees handled my order promptly — I was, after all, the only customer at the time — I found service at the Paso Robles franchise uneven and a tad rushed. Some of the food, too, fell short of expectations.
The college student in me may find a reason or two to come back, however. Taco del Mar is so eager for repeat business that the cashier handed me a punch card with my order promising a free burrito after I buy 10. Only six more burritos to go!
Taco del Mar
2307 Theater Drive, Suite 700
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Monday through Saturday;
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
1540 East Grand Ave., Suite B
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
The scene: Mexican fast food with a tropical flair
The cuisine: Fish tacos, massive burritos and other favorites
Expect to spend: $2 to $6
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.