Taco Mamacita: Not your mama's taco spot

When the restaurant business runs in your blood, it is hard to leave it and go down another career path. That seems to sum up the trajectory of Mike and Taylor Monen.

Mike Monen is a former partner in the Sticky Fingers barbecue chain, which was sold in 2006. His hiatus from the industry was brief. In 2008, he and his wife and business partner, Taylor, launched Taco Mamacita in Chattanooga, Tenn. A second location followed in Nashville, and this past summer, Taco Mamacita opened in July on Sullivan's Island.

With menu assistance from the guru of "Truly Mexican" cooking, Roberto Santibanez, the Monens committed to local, fresh and scratch cooking. This is not nachos by heat lamp or tacos by textured vegetable product. It also is not a taqueria featuring pulpo (octopus) or sesos (brains). In fact, it has fun with tacos and loads corn tortillas with brisket, gyro meat, the ingredients of a club sandwich, a shrimp po' boy and a Sloppy Joe filling called Jose.

The menu is similar in all of the properties with a local nod to chipotle-seasoned turnip greens and collards ($2.50) here in South Carolina.

They take pride in making their guacamole to order and squeezing juices for their beverage menu as well as house-made salsas, dressings and stocks.

Stumphouse Design converted the former Seel's On Sullivan's space to a cheeky cantina with the sassy "Mamacita" captured in vintage Mexican screened print posters by Steve Hamaker. Salvaged building materials, ceiling-suspended doors, sparkling star lights and over-size holiday ornaments bring a funky look to the space.

Service is friendly and engaging. The wait staff is proud of its scratch-cooking kitchen and well-informed about the menu and its preparations.

The tequila menu has depth and length. Also offered are sangria, a Mojito of the Day and a variety of tasty margaritas (some better than others).

Fans of elote, a Mexican street food classic that layers roasted corn with crema, queso, lime and chile ($2.50) will enjoy Taco Mamacita's version with an icy Modelo.

For the most part, we found the side dishes on the tame side. Flashes of jalapeno sparked the coleslaw but did not "heat" it, the charros beans lacked depth of flavor and the black bean and corn salad needed a power play of seasoning. Chipotle lived up to its nature, adding smoke and heat to a side of collards, but overall the intensity of the seasonings and herbs that the kitchen takes pride in using was underserved in the dishes.

The guacamole ($7.99) was fresh with avocado but lame in lime, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro and salt.

The tortilla soup ($6.99), a meal in itself, features shredded chicken, sliced avocado, chunks of queso fresca, diced tomatoes, lime and cilantro stems. It is served in a deep bowl lined with a lush landscape of ingredients. However, it is messy to eat. The condiments are too large to fit on a spoon and the lime that brightens the taste of this soup is floating around with chunks of queso, strands of cilantro and a small side of crisped tortilla strips. Tepid at best, the cheese did not melt and the other ingredients did not bloom, as the broth was not hot.

It was the temperature of the foods that most detracted from the eating experience. Here was a kitchen taking the time to cook from scratch, marinate escabeche, season carnitas with allspice, add peaches to aioli and flavor mayonnaise with jalapeno and lime. Yet when a taco was assembled into a cold wrapper with chilled ingredients, you lost the luster that should shine with the flavors of the finished dish.

Taco Mamacita's problems are easy to fix. Its sassy location on Middle Street, its accommodating and friendly wait staff and its value-priced menu offer tradition and innovation for today's diner.