Tex-Mex can be confusing to, well, anyone not from Texas. It involves lots of meat—various cuts of beef; pork ribs, shreds and slices—but there's also tortillas, peppers and beans involved. Watching me reheat leftovers from a recent visit to Loco BBQ, a new takeout-only Tex-Mex joint on North Lombard Street, a WW intern said, "That looks more like Mexican food than barbecue." And he was right. Tex-Mex is a post-cuisine: fare built on the tasty flavors of two long-surviving and delicious food cultures.
Loco, opened by Peru-born, Northwest-bred chef Gary Herrera (whose wife, Bonnie, owns St. Johns' Hawaiian-style barbecue joint Big Kahuna) in May, takes elements of both Mexican food and barbecue and adds a casual, picnic vibe. Sammies—like the roasted-for-16-hours pulled pork ($6.75) and the heavenly, pickle-and-smoked-jalapeño-topped, jus-soaked Texas dip ($7.75)—come with "Loco slaw" coated in a thick and tangy, cilantro-studded vinaigrette, plus a creamy Reser's-like potato salad. Other sandwiches, like the Cow Tri-Tip 'n' Steak ($8.75), topped with grilled onions and pepper Jack, are worth splurging on, though the infuriatingly sloppy Longhorn, which piles beef brisket atop a six-ounce smoked sausage, leaves you with two palmfuls of meaty goodness thanks to that Southwestern au jus. Every order comes in a heavy-duty takeout container designed to withstand the heaviest of saucings.
Did someone mention sauce? Loco's tender, toothsome Carlton Farms meats would be lost without it. Upon entering the quaint space, it's clear these folks (who welcome call-ahead orders) have priorities. Sauce, stacked high in small plastic cups in the prep area, prevails. There are two: a deep-colored, brown sugar- and molasses-rich "Sweet" and an orange-tinted, cayenne-heavy "Hot" that's delightfully piquant and not overly spicy.
It's in the entrees that the "Mex" part comes into play. Generous helpings of boneless, dry-rubbed and strip-cut smoked chicken breast ($6.75), fork-tender pork shoulder ($7.75) and delectable beef brisket ($9.75) come with the slaw as well as beans, rice and tortillas. The refried "Tex-Mex" beans are a little dry, but rich in flavor. And the "Southwestern" rice is sticky and moist, recalling peppers, tomatoes and cayenne in its orange-red patina of spices.
The conundrum, for me, was whether to load it all burrito-style onto a tortilla or simply use a fork and treat that thin, floury disc like a piece of bread. See, I don't know what to do with Tex-Mex. But I'm sure Loco's super-friendly staff would be happy to help. And with reasonable prices and a straightforward menu, figuring it all out is gonna be damn tasty.
Loco BBQ is located at 7123 N Lombard St., 517-0243. Open 11 am until they "run out of food" (really), Monday-Saturday. Visit locobbq.com for online coupons.