Viva México

Casa Grande

4796 Caughlin Parkway, 828-7777

Casa Grande is an upscale Mexican-American restaurant—the kind of place with pleasant decor and seating for a birthday dinner, or with out-of-town guests who might not be down with the more authentic aspects of other taquerias. None of the dishes are terribly spicy, and you won’t find any “exotic” ingredients on the menu.

A basket of corn tortilla chips was served with a smooth, medium-spicy salsa and warm, spiced bean dip. We killed the first round with haste and quickly received more frijoles and salsa. House margaritas ($9.95) were served with an ice-filled, classic welled glass, heavily rimmed with salt and accompanied by a wedge of lime. The cocktail itself was in an iced shaker, to be poured by the customer. I refilled that glass at least three times before the shaker ran dry.

A half order of apretalados ($14) showed up not long after ordered. The dish is comprised of prawns and crab meat wrapped in crispy bacon atop a plentiful bed of sauteed bell pepper, onion and mushroom, with melted jack cheese, sliced avocado and pico de gallo. The half order is more than enough for four people as an appetizer.

Entrees arrived just as fast as our appetizer and cocktails, starting with my friend’s enchiladas suiza ($15), a pair of chicken enchiladas doused in a sauce of fresh tomatillo, green pepper and onion and served with a side of sour cream, lettuce and tomato. It came with refried beans and rice on the side. The shredded chicken was moist, and the fruity, savory sauce did the trick. The beans were excellent, though the bland rice (with corn) wasn’t my favorite.

A plate of beans and rice with barbacoa ($15)—large chunks of beef marinated in red chile sauce then slow-steamed until tender—was also everything you’d expect and want from the dish. My big “Muy Especial” plate ($19) was indeed pretty special. A pounded-thin piece of marinated chicken breast, carne asada and large prawns were flame broiled and served with several whole mushrooms sauteed in butter, garlic and spices, with plenty of guacamole, pico de gallo, and beans and rice on the side. A dish of spiced, drawn butter was provided for dipping.

Having said that, the next time I visit, I’ll definitely order my friend’s choice of camarones culichi ($16), a beautiful sea of tail-free shrimp cooked with sliced mushroom, garlic and butter, and smothered in poblano chile and creamy, cheesy Sinaloa-style culichi sauce. The sides of rice and a salad of romaine, avocado, cheddar and tomato with lime cilantro dressing were an afterthought to the main event. That heart-stopping, delicious sauce was something to be appreciated—not terribly spicy but fantastically savory.

Casa Grande is open Sunday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday

Taqueria El Taconazo

555 Greenbrae Drive, Sparks, 355-3222

Taqueria El Taconazo is essentially still a fast food joint—but finally serving the real stuff. The interior is clean and functional. The counter service on my visit was really efficient. And the food, well, Taco Bell it ain’t.

The salsa bar has green, red and orange sauces, the heat of which progressed in that order. All three were very good, though I particularly enjoyed the herbaceous, hot red stuff. Most places include a mild, pickled mix of veggies, but the escabeche here had cauliflower, carrot, onion and salty cotija cheese swimming together in a fairly spicy marinade. I highly approve.

We tried a couple of barbacoa and cecina tacos ($1.29 each); both meats were very tender, packed with flavor and well appointed with cilantro and onion. A chile relleno taco ($1.69) featured a small, cheese-stuffed and battered pepper, topped with lettuce and tomato.

The lightly crisped tortilla pocket of a nopalitos gordita ($2.69) was stuffed with plenty of marinated cactus, lettuce and tomato and might have been the best tasting item overall. If you’ve never tried seasoned strips of prickly pear, this is a great place for your first taste. A chicharones gordita verde ($2.89) was a lot spicier than expected, which helped distract from the extremely chewy pig skin.

A serving of three chicken enchiladas with rice and refried beans ($5.89) was a pretty sizeable plate of food. The nicely seasoned meat wasn’t dry, and there was just enough sauce to do the trick. The rice was fluffy and tasted pretty good on its own, but I, of course, like mixing it with the beans. These were a bit on the salty side, so the combination evened them out a bit.

My carne asada burrito ($4.99) was made for meat lovers, with way more steak than any other filling. It was a little over-seasoned, but otherwise grilled just the way I like it. Adding some of the citrusy green salsa made it that much better, though at this point I was so full I had to save most of it for the next day’s lunch. I certainly didn’t mind a bit.

Taqueria El Taconazo is open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

El Original Tacos Tijuana

2201 Prater Way, Sparks, 358-0843

El Original Tacos Tijuana has a pretty short menu, so I was half expecting a taco stand. Instead I found a dining area with booth and table seating and a drive through window for take-out. The salsa bar includes the usual garnishes and four housemade salsas ranging from medium and fruity to “let’s get this party rolling” hot. You’ll have to go elsewhere for a beer, but with fresh, handmade corn tortillas, I had eyes only for the food.

Tacos ($2.25-$2.50 each) are available with a choice of 10 meats. They come standard with onion, cilantro and medium salsa, with optional toppings of nopal (cactus, 50 cents extra), guacamole, sour cream, etc. I stuck with the basics and ordered one each of cabeza, lengua, carnitas, buche, al pastor, asada, tripa, pollo and Azteca.

Each taco was loaded with meat. The Azteca is a mix of carne asada (marinated, grilled steak) and nopal. The steak had a ton of flavor and plenty of smoky char from the grill, a great contrast with the slightly citrusy, tart cactus.

The cabeza (beef head) was soft, fatty and mildly seasoned. The lengua (beef tongue) was smooth and tender. The carnitas (slow cooked pork) was tender, moist and pulled apart with ease. Although the buche’s (beef stomach) flavor was quite good, it was a little on the squishy side. Al pastor (spit-roasted pork with pineapple) was a little crispy and spicy, with a perfect balance of pineapple. When done right, tripa (intestine) has just a hint of livery gaminess that reminds you you’re eating offal. Though a tad chewy, this example tasted great. Last was a better than average grilled pollo (chicken) taco that was well seasoned, moist and smoky.

Out of curiosity, I ordered a guacamole chorizo (sausage) vampiro ($4) and flour tortilla mula with saudero (brisket) and nopal ($4). A mula is essentially the contents of two (or three?) tacos, stuffed between a pair of five-inch tortillas. There was nothing wrong with the flour discs, but they paled by comparison. The brisket was fattier than the cabeza and could have used more seasoning, but a healthy dose of salsa helped out. The vampiro was stuffed and then grilled on both sides, to the point of seriously charring the corn tortillas. The oil from the chorizo drenched the whole thing, and it was delicious—a little crunchy, a tad chewy and supremely spicy. The guacamole got a little lost in the mix, but I hardly noticed.

I’ve had mixed results with the popular combination of French fries and carne asada, but an order of campechana fries ($10) was absolutely fabulous. The mix of grilled steak and adobada (marinated pork) was killer, and there was plenty of it. The fries could have been a little crispier, but I really didn’t care.

El Original Tacos Tijuana is open Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Nevada Taco Grill

2995 Vista Blvd., Sparks, 376-1844

Nevada Taco Grill is a no-frills taqueria serving up the goods in a tiny space with seating for perhaps 10, assuming they’re well-acquainted. My trio ordered a few items and found a spot to sit and dine amid folks waiting on take-out.

The two-person operation was cranking out food in short order, and we soon settled into our unplanned feast. Somewhat ironically, the tacos were actually the least successful items. Curious about the difference between the “street” ($1.99 each) versus “regular” tacos ($2.99 each), we tried a couple of each. The choice of meats included shredded chicken or beef, grilled chicken, carne asada, carnitas and adobada, and they also have specials during the week that include hard-shell, house-fried tortillas.

The street variety were the typical pair of three-inch corn tortillas—topped with meat, diced onion and fresh cilantro—while the regulars were six-inch, single tortillas with the same ingredients, plus fresh pico de gallo. The pork carnitas and adobada were a bit on the crunchy side from being tossed on the grill, but they still tasted good. Beef asada was better, though a tad chewy. They were also a little light on the meat compared to other tacos around town.

A combo plate of three shredded beef rolled tacos ($7.25) was served with melted cheese and guacamole on top and sides of rice and beans. The taquitos were crunchy with good masa flavor—filled with plenty of seasoned meat—and much better than their unfried cousins. The rice was fair, the frijoles refritos quite good, but the guacamole was a blended, runny sauce—not bad, just not the chunky stuff I prefer.

Given a choice between shredded or grilled chicken on my mother’s torta ($5.75), we went grilled. The small chunks of meat were actually tender and reasonably moist, accompanied by bell pepper, onion, tomato and lettuce on a soft, perfectly lovely Mexican roll.

Always on the hunt for a decent chile relleno—yet always with low expectations—I went ahead and got the relleno and cheese enchilada combo plate ($8.75). The enchilada was average, but the stuffed pepper was easily my favorite item of the meal. The large poblano pepper was meaty—not overcooked—and had a nice bit of kick. Stuffed with a ton of melty cheese and topped with a fresh and flavorful, just-shy-of-chunky red enchilada sauce, every bite made me sad to see it disappear. Surprisingly, this gas station chile relleno is among my top five from the past few years.

My wife just can’t not order nachos ($9.50), and I’m glad she can’t resist. Topped with a ton of carne asada, refried beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole and both melted and shredded cheese sprinkles, the thin, crispy chips did a respectable job with their burden. The chips themselves were excellent, and the bounty of well-seasoned meat and beans more-or-less made the cheese irrelevant. They were even good as leftovers the next day.

Nevada Taco Grill is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.