Fire in the Hole
I have this good friend who has bad asthma, which is a shame, really, because in addition to being an avid weekend warrior, he's also a hearty eater. Overeating can complicate an asthma attack, and apparently there's no worse sensation, when you already feel like you're suffocating, than being so full that you can't take a deep breath because your stomach is pressing on your diaphragm.
I saw it happen once. We'd just purchased some take-out from a little Mexican food joint on South Beach called San Loco. Doug was stuffing himself with a version of the house specialty, the taco/guaco loco, which comprises a crisp corn taco shell containing a choice of five fillings -- chicken, ground beef, fried fish, refried beans, or Mexican rice -- along with shredded lettuce, shaved cheese, and "special sauce" (more on the sauce in a minute). Wrapped around the taco is a soft flour tortilla, which has been smeared either with vegetarian refried beans (the taco loco) or guacamole made with California Haas avocados (the guaco loco).
This is one hefty sandwich, but it's so delicious that some people order two. Doug, proudly loco himself, polished off three, downed two more regular hard-shell tacos, and then began to wheeze violently -- not because of the food but because of the fact that I have five cats. So it stands to reason that Doug would associate San Loco with this ordeal, doesn't it? Well, he's not exactly the reasonable type, so when he discovered that I was planning to visit the new, 20-seat San Loco, located in the Historic Riverfront District on SW Second Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, he insisted on coming along. It turns out Doug's as big a fan of San Loco as that Chihuahua is of Taco Bell.
Not that Taco Bell should be mentioned in the same sentence as San Loco. Sure, they're both chains, but Taco Bell has locations all over the world, and San Loco has just four (two of which are in New York City). Both chains specialize in Mexican street food -- tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, and burritos -- served at cut-rate prices. Both offer counter rather than table service. Both operate in casual surroundings, although San Loco tends toward the funky, with walls painted red and yellow and hung with collectible, beat-up tin advertisements. (At the restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, there's the distinct impression that you're dining inside a Coke can; the one on South Beach is, well, just plain grungy.)
But the comparison really begins and ends with the quality of the food. Whereas corporate chains mass-produce and prepackage their fare, family-run operations like San Loco make all the dishes from scratch and on location. Because that's the case, execution may vary at the San Locos, which share the exact same menu. For example, one of my favorite items is the zesty sopa de pollo, a rich stock spiked with onions, tomatoes, bell and jalapeño peppers, and juicy, boneless chicken. Unfortunately the soup was watery and bland the night we sampled it in Fort Lauderdale. Perhaps the broth needs to be boiled with some poultry bones to give it that caramelized color and deep flavor to which I'm accustomed.
Take the chicken itself out of the soup, and you have filling for either the chicken soft-shell taco or the chicken burrito. The taco, a flour tortilla, encased a generous portion of chicken along with stewed onions and bell peppers and was best eaten with a plastic knife and fork. Ditto the burrito, which was served in a basket and topped with shredded cheddar cheese, taco sauce, and a sprinkle of chopped white onions. Far more satiating options are the burrito grande, which adds sour cream and lettuce to the mix, and the burrito loco, which comes with all of the above plus guacamole, tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, refried beans, and Mexican rice. As with the guaco loco, one of these can tide me over for a day or two.
Taco locos, hard-shell tacos, soft-shell tacos, burritos, and the like may also be ordered with fragrant ground beef, fish, lard-free beans, or Mexican rice flavored with tomato sauce. We decided to stay with the tender chicken filling for an order of enchiladas. Each order features two enchiladas, but only one is filled with chicken, the other with cheddar cheese. They were served with creamy chicken loco sauce, as well as the "special sauce" and a dollop of sour cream. The special sauce, ladled over everything from taco locos to taco burgers (taco fillings on hamburger buns), comes in four varieties: mild, medium, "serious," and "stupid." The mild is a tomato-and-chili-flavored condiment with a hint of lime juice; the stupid is just a chopped-up blend of chili peppers. On a scale of one to ten, the stupid, to borrow a joke from This Is Spinal Tap, goes to eleven -- and burns inside your stomach for hours. You have been warned.
The fish taco salad may sound like the healthiest of the bunch, but don't be fooled. Not only is this dish huge, but the lettuce is interspersed with homemade corn chips, blanketed with chunks of fried whitefish and cheddar cheese, and served in a fried flour-tortilla bowl. A little vinaigrette dressing and a touch of special sauce moisten the mix, and chopped tomatoes and onions add spice.
The moral of the story, of course, is that single items are big enough to satisfy single appetites but tasty enough to inspire gluttony. San Loco is not the kind of place where you linger over a multicourse meal with a bottle of wine; you go there to stuff your face after a night of carousing in downtown Fort Lauderdale. If you insist on starters, though, the chili loco, a blend of ground beef and kidney beans served in a fluted corn-tortilla bowl, sparked our taste buds. San Loco also mixes up a faultless guacamole daily; mostly smooth and creamy, it also offers chunks of avocado, onions, and tomatoes here and there.
As far as dessert goes, there's only one menu item: the apple loco. A fried flour tortilla is laid out flat, dusted with cinnamon sugar, and spread with apple pie filling. The apples were garnished with cheddar cheese and a handful of crushed Red Hots, as if to remind patrons that eating dessert after a San Loco meal is as loco as ordering the "stupid" sauce. Fortunately Doug has been practicing stretching his stomach since his asthma attack five years ago, and this time he managed to eat so much the guys behind the counter were amazed. And all with "stupid" sauce, no less. After a week he's probably still breathing fire, but at least he's breathing.
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