When I grew up in Exeter, N.H., Portsmouth Avenue wasn’t exactly a hotbed of ethnic cuisine. There were a couple of family restaurants and sub shops, an array of fast-food franchises, and the Ho Kong, where the Scorpion Bowls were more of an attraction than the Chinese food.
We love Mexican food, though, and news that a third Mexican restaurant had opened on the stretch between downtown and Route 101 was enough to call for a visit. A three-way carne asada taco showdown was our plan.
Our first stop was Margaritas, the local outpost of a chain with two dozen restaurants in four New England states and Pennsylvania. We’d heard that the margaritas and the décor were good, which they were, especially with Hornitos Reposado tequila in the drinks, and plenty of Mexican art on the walls and shelves above the colorful tiled tabletops. Mexican music played at a modest volume.
Our server was a cheerful, informal local who, alas, addressed our party of one man and two women as “guys.”
Despite authentic items on the menu, the presence of chimichangas and “nachos cowabunga” suggested that much of the food was thoroughly Americanized, and our three-taco plate bore that out: soft corn tacos as requested, with chopped lettuce, tomato, and cheese heaped over very mildly seasoned pieces of beef. The $9.29 plate (three tacos) came with a $1 charge for carne asada instead of ground beef, chicken, or pork carnitas.
Verdict? A good place for an after-work drink and a plate of nachos, not so much for serious taco eating.
Next we crossed the busy road to the new Mexico Lindo, run by members of the Arellano family in a former Friendly’s location. The bland décor said “former Friendly’s” – there wasn’t much hanging on the walls – but the louder music, soccer playing on the bar’s TV, multicolored menus, and general atmosphere seemed more authentic.
We got another Hornitos margarita, and differed over whether it was better than the one at Margaritas. (My mom for some reason ordered a piña colada, which came with whipped cream on top. Go figure.)
The chips and salsa served while we waited were better than at Margaritas, or at least the salsa was, with more heat. The grilled steak tacos ($11 for three, with rice and beans) came with real flavor and both pico de gallo and a zippy tomatillo sauce.
My wife opted out of beef and got the same plate with chorizo sausage meat. That was everyone’s favorite plate of the day — the crumbled chorizo oozing reddish grease, intensely spicy and smoky — really delicious.
Our final stop was Las Olas Taqueria, on the old Ho Kong site. Instead of table service, it has a counter set-up, where you order and tell them what you want in your tacos, burritos, quesadillas, etc. (There’s also a location in Hampton.)
The name means The Waves, and the logo features a simplified breaker. There are Mexican or Mexican-inspired artworks around, but the cheery, sponge-painted, turquoise-heavy color scheme gives it more of a California beach vibe. I could swear they were playing soft rock, too.
They have beers and pre-mixed margaritas, but we opted for three refreshing Mexican Cokes, having hit our limit for afternoon tequila consumption. We swear we can taste the difference in the Cokes, although maybe it’s just the psychological effect of the old-fashioned hourglass bottle with the painted-on label.
At Las Olas, the marinated steak is called ancho beef, presumably in deference to the chili pepper involved, and a taco costs $3.20. This version was the best steak taco out of the three restaurants we tried.
The choice of cilantro, beans, and other extras makes a difference, and Las Olas’s range of hot sauces brings both heat and flavor. But a second try at chorizo ($3.80) found that the sausage meat (which the menu touts as being from Kelly Brook Farm in nearby Greenland) just didn’t have the bright-red zing of the stuff at Mexico Lindo, even if it was better for us.
Finally it was time to head home, and no, none of us wanted supper.
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.