Only a few weeks old, Nanataco is already a favorite with suburban families and college students, but the prowling foodie instinctively hesitates. This hesitation turns to alarm when the counter girl asks, "Would you like corn tortillas or flour?" Corn, please.
Nanataco is intriguing in concept. Its sister restaurant is the high-end mainstay Nana's, which resides next door. The prospect of a certain cross-pollination—Southern-Continental haute cuisine brought to bear on the monument of the Mexican taco—has had culinary scene-watchers salivating.
The reality is somewhat mixed. Nanataco is an inviting place to bury the week with friends or placate the kids after a long day. There are mojitos for the former, unusually good milkshakes for the latter. The fare is generously portioned and fairly priced. The staff is cheerful and eager to help. All the same, mavens, aficionados, scorekeepers, chowhounds and other snooty nitpickers will have to look elsewhere—specifically, to Roxboro Street's string of authentic taquerias.
The tacos are the crux of the matter. "Grilled veggies" and "house rotisserie chicken" don't belong in a tortilla, but otherwise the offerings are esoteric and enticing: braised beef tongue, chili-rubbed pork butt, chorizo, duck confit, fish (grilled and fried), garlic-flavored beef, hog jowls, lamb cheeks, pork belly. Unfortunately, this menagerie of odd bits needs tweaking. There is the runny (lamb), the dry (duck, pork butt), the bland (chicken, fish) and the merely salty (chorizo, garlic-flavored beef). Flavors tend to be blunt or muted. Even the chorizo—advertised as "spicy"—is nothing of the kind. One longs for a hint of caramelization, a surprising peep of clove or cumin, a flash of heat, anything that might hoof a little dance on the palate.
The national pork belly craze comes to the rescue, as it tends to do. Pork belly, of course, could emerge from a long trudge through Death Valley with its fatty sheen still glistening. In Nanataco's version, crispy, smoky cubes of meat and fat (50-50, I would say) exploit nostalgia for the good old days when bacon ruled the land. I would call this one of the better tacos in the Triangle. The tongue is another winner. Tender and simple, it has a wonderfully unclouded beef essence that should not be concealed by salsas and fixings. I would have liked to try the hog jowls, but these were unavailable during my several visits.
The tortillas themselves—the house-made corn tortillas, that is—have foibles of their own. Instead of firm to the tooth, al dente in the spirit of Italian pasta, they are thick and bready. Even worse: white bready. One misses the loamy fragrance of corn and the subtle counterpoint of griddle char. Paired with wetter fillings and salsas, the tortillas become soggy and break, lacking the density or maybe the seared surface of better versions. (The best tortillas in the Triangle, for the record, emanate from Captain Poncho's Taco Truck, which mysteriously materializes and dematerializes in the vicinity of Carrboro and southern Chapel Hill.)
Rounding out the menu are salads, soups, nachos, quesadillas, burritos, chilies rellenos and chicken mole, with chocolate cupcakes for dessert and milkshakes to wash things down. The mole has the surface tang of a decent barbecue sauce but lacks the murky, muddy depth of the real thing. The chilies rellenos—stuffed with spinach and goat cheese and dredged rather than soufflé-battered—are heavy, rich and a touch dressed up for my taste, reminding me of jumbo wedding hors d'oeuvres.
The traditional taco beverage is horchata, a cinnamon-flavored, mildly sweet rice drink usually served over plenty of ice. Milkshakes are at least in the ballpark, and Nanataco's are damned good: creamy and precisely flavored but not cloyingly sweet. The Mexican chocolate shake has a correct and delicious cinnamon undertone, but the tropical fruit shakes—banana, mango—pair better with the food, echoing the occasional citrus note.
Nanataco occupies a converted garage, with ample seating on a surrounding deck. When the glass-windowed garage doors are open, the entire restaurant becomes an outdoor patio, conducive to margarita-drinking in the summer twilight. The view of the strip mall across the street is not exactly romantic, but who knows what a few drinks will accomplish. Room-wise, the only problem is that the long line to place orders at the counter bisects the dining area, obstructing the path to the salsa bar, soda fountain and bathrooms.
The modest prices, unassuming décor and chalkboard menu remind one of The Original Q Shack, next door. Like the beloved barbecue joint, Nanataco is sure to thrive within its niche. It will prompt no urgent emails to foodie comrades, but it will speak to those not ready to brave the Spanish-only menus of the barrio.