Rusty Taco taste test
When Rusty Taco, a Dallas-based fast-casual franchise, opened its first out-of-Texas branch in St. Paul, it raised a few eyebrows. But the concept worked, and about a month ago Minneapolis got its very own location on East Hennepin Avenue. In an attempt to objectively weigh Rusty's tacos against the heavy-hitting competition in the area, I assembled a council of experienced taco enthusiasts to sample all 12 of Rusty's taco varieties to see which ones made the grade, and which ones didn't. Here is our Rusty Taco report card.
12. Rajas: We expected this vegetarian taco, made with grilled poblano peppers, onions, and mushrooms, to have the smoky, savory quality one expects from that combination of ingredients. But disappointingly, the veggies were totally limp and actually a little bitter from overcooking. In fact, the only discernible flavor in the taco came from the scant amount of queso fresco dusted on top. Considering how mild queso fresco is on the cheese spectrum, that's a pretty pathetic high note.
Report card notes: "This does absolutely nothing for me."
11. Roasted pork: The tenets of minimalist design stress the importance of execution. If something is going to be done simply, it should be done exceptionally well. Following that logic, we were all psyched about Rusty's plainly dressed, meat-focused tacos, but we were particularly let down by the flat, dimensionless, roasted pork version. This one comes with cotija cheese and shockingly pink pickled onions that deliver neither the crunch nor vinegary hit that this taco needs.
Report card notes: "Maybe if we try it with one of the salsas? Maybe if we try it with all of the salsas?"
10. Beef fajita: Again, the star protein in this taco really failed to come through in the flavor or texture department. The strips of beef were too chewy, and even though there was still plenty of room to add bell peppers or even zucchini, Rusty Taco instead goes spartan with a few grilled onions and a garnishing of cilantro. We could see the potential in the beef fajita if the meat had been properly cooked, but the first impression wasn't good.
Report card notes: "I already forgot what this tasted like."
9. Chicken fajita: Unlike its beefy brethren, the chicken in this taco was actually cooked perfectly and had good internal flavor, but the springy cube-shaped pieces were too big for a three-bite taco. Fresh pico de gallo is supposed to finish off this roll-up, but it didn't seem like the mixture had any time to marinate and thus just looked, felt, and tasted like chunks of bland tomato.
Report card notes: "Is this pork?"
8. Brisket: This one (which was topped with raw onion, cilantro, and queso fresco) was much closer to the experience we were hoping to get with the roasted pork: rich flavor, tender meat, and just enough fat to get the party started. The only real problem was with the amount, which was paltry, and the fact that it could have been a little juicier.
Report card notes: "I have no legitimate problem with this, but I probably wouldn't order it again."
7. BBQ brisket: The overly sweet house-made barbecue sauce appears only on this taco, but it does a lot to improve the "not so juicy" situation we complained of with the regular brisket taco. Texturally, the BBQ version gets a leg up courtesy of the crisp cabbage slaw.
Report card notes: "I like it, but it doesn't really scream 'taco' to me. It says 'graduation party sandwich.'"
6. Rusty: The restaurant's namesake taco has a nice complexity and seemed to be the only one in which the heat and smokiness of the dry spices (in this case achiote paste) could actually be detected. Don't be deterred by the pineapple on top — it helps balance out the crazy-hot habanero salsa you can get at the counter, though be forewarned: Even a frozen margarita (they're pretty good here) won't drown out that sauce.
Report card notes: "It's like when you get Hawaiian pizza. It always seems like a good idea, and then it's always the one that has the most pieces left over."
5. Baja shrimp: The textures at play here are just about everything you'd want in a single bite, no matter how averse you are to the concept of a shrimp taco. The salty, crispy little bits of fried crustacean, the crunch of the thinly sliced red cabbage, and the creaminess of whatever mayo-based dressing "baja sauce" is really work well here. The main problem is that it actually overstuffs and weighs down the little corn tortilla, so it becomes impossible to handle.
Report card notes: "I was surprised at how much I liked this."
Top of the Class
4. Fish: Rusty's comes with either battered and fried or grilled (which was what we ended up with when we didn't specify during the ordering process) fish fillet, chipotle crema, cabbage, and cilantro. The fish was flaky, well seasoned, and well portioned. What more could you ask for? A squeeze of lime? Every taco comes with a mini wedge for pumping up the acidity level.
Report card notes: "I've had better around town, but not at this price. This is probably the best $3, non-fried fish taco I've had in Minneapolis."
3. Picadillo: We had to keep going back to this ground-beef-and-potato-based taco to decide whether it would take the No. 3 or No. 2 spot. It had the best unadulterated (i.e., free of cremas and salsas) flavor, and the potatoes gave a uniquely soft, home-cooked effect to each bite. Dusted with chiles, raw onions, and cilantro, this one was just uncomplicated and comforting. Kind of like watching reruns of Friends.
Report card notes: "What is a picadillo again? Is it an animal or an instrument?"
2. Black bean: The only taco to require the backup strength of a second tortilla, this vegetarian taco was fully loaded and super-flavorful. Usually beans are a hard sell when things like slow-roasted pork or seared beef are in the mix, but as previously mentioned, many of the meaty options failed to blow us away. The toasted pumpkin seeds on top are an excellent complement.
Report card notes: "I'm glad to know that the beans aren't being maligned. Good ol' beans."
1. Fried chicken: It may sound like it has all the makings of one of those 1,200-calorie salads from Applebee's — fried nuggets of chicken, cabbage slaw, and jalapeño ranch dressing — but somehow everything comes together really well in this dish. Maybe it's even a stretch to call it a taco, but it was the unanimous No. 1 vote of the council, and we, as a body, have to respect the democratic process.
Report card notes: "I hate myself a little for having this one be my favorite, but it's totally my favorite."
The frosty margaritas, inexpensive taps ($3 Fultons!), fast delivery, and range of options make this spot ideal for late-night dining (they stay open till 10, but I suspect they would get an after-bar rush if they ever decided to stay open past midnight) or a very fast lunch with co-workers. But what Rusty Taco really has going for it is the hangout factor. It feels like a little hole-in-the-wall bar, somewhat akin to Mac's Industrial but with cheaper beer. Are there better tacos a little farther up Central Avenue? Of course there are. But your worst day eating 12 serviceable tacos is still better than your best day with no tacos at all.
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