Educated food folks know that some of the best dining happens in the sketchiest locales. Dives, hole-in-the-wall, no frills, or “locals-only” – whatever it’s called, these spaces are usually sad buildings with mismatched furniture and hastily painted walls. Service is either over-the-top friendly or comically ambivalent, but rarely in between. This reverse-fine dining is also a reputation badge in a weird sort of elitist, “I know this great dive,” way.
That noted, there are great hole-in-the wall establishments, and then sometimes there are just holes in the wall. Los Tapatios shows glimmers of both.
The neon Miller Lite sign hangs from a basement level window visible from Biddeford’s Adams Street. I opened the door into the ornate, historic building and wondered if the wrought-iron security gate with its curlicue scrollwork dated to the original construction. (A note to diners: be careful of the abrupt and immediate steps down to the lower level.) Somewhat incongruously, the wall surrounding the Los Tapatios entryway is painted bright green with a big “Bienvenidos” in psychedelic red font.
Inside is all brick with exposed wooden ceilings – a renovation lover’s dream, covered with Corona mirrors and hung with beer advertisement flags. There is a mural depicting Mexican dancers, and sombreros and maracas also punctuate the décor.
Tables and chairs are the cheap, banquet-style variety, and the place sort of smells like a basement with notes of corn tortilla. There is no good cross ventilation, and it feels like a place that would appeal to undergraduates on a budget.
Chips and salsa are complimentary, and although I did not ask, these chips – served warm and salty – must be homemade. The salsa, too. Tomato-based, this smooth and not-too-spicy salsa tasted like the freshest possible tomatoes, onions and cilantro.
Same for the Guacamole Dip ($3.75). With pieces of identifiable, ripe avocado, this dip was perfect plain in its simplicity. In fact, a diner could easily make a full meal (and I suspect many do) from the many dips on the list. Recommendations: Los Tapatios Dip with chorizo, cheese, beans and jalapenos ($5.50) and the Queso Fundido ($5.50).
The menu itself, laminated and lengthy, advertises a “Most Popular” section that includes both Mole Poblano ($10.99) and Yolandas ($10.99), two of my favorites.
I have been known to spoon mole poblano’s mellow cocoa goodness with a spoon, so I was thrilled to see it on the menu, and the mole poblano at Los Tapatios is decent. It’s advertised as “chocolate based with three types of chile and 20 different spices,” and I believe the description. The sauce itself was on the salty side, but it still possessed a rich depth of character from those 20 spices. In this iteration, my biggest critique was that there was so very much of it. It drenched two chicken breasts, pounded thin and well done to the point of chewiness. A generous side of cheese-topped beans and rice completed the dish, and, overall, it was a nice, homestyle meal.
The Yolandas were three chicken enchiladas, served with salsa verde, guacamole, lettuce, and the same cheese-topped beans and rice. These enchiladas had a great ratio of chicken-to-tortilla, but as with the mole poblano, there was so very much sauce.
For value, Los Tapatios offers combination plates in either $7.99 or the slightly pricier $8.49 varieties. Both options include American expectations like tacos and burritos, but this combo menu also lists more authentic preparations. I want to particularly note the chile poblano and the tamales, and any combination plate with these two in the lineup should make lovers of SoCal-style street food very, very happy.
Here is where I return to the value proposition and note that in addition to value-conscious Mexican food, Los Tapatios is, most definitely, a good place to drink on the cheap. Posters advertising 5-beer bottle buckets on Sundays for $11.99 testify to this goal. Los Tapatios margaritas are enormous and made with heavy pours of cheap tequila. For budget drinkers, this is good. When I asked if the margaritas were blended from a pre-packaged mix, there was a language barrier, and while eventually gave up, I’m guessing the answer is yes. (If not, the heavy pour of cheap tequila was the source of my sour beverage.) However, I’m guessing that after the first few gulps, earnest drinkers will feel the tequila’s effects and no longer worry about the taste.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”