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RESTAURANT REVIEW: Tacos 4 Life: food 4 a cause

By Jennifer Christman

This article was published March 30, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.


Two Basic Beef tacos come with cilantro lime rice at Tacos 4 Life, but don’t miss the Mexican cream-style corn.

Tacos 4 Life

Address: 2630 S. Shackleford Road, Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Cuisine: Fast-casual tacos, quesadillas

Alcoholic beverages: No

Reservations: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes, and drive-through

(501) 404-0144

Tacos 4 Life has brought a new location to life in Little Rock.

It's 4 Life's fourth fast-casual outlet. The Arkansas-based mini-chain operates two restaurants in Conway, one in Fayetteville and expects to open another in Benton this spring.

We enjoyed the food and friendly service during three visits (two sit-down, and one drive-through). We appreciate the fun vibe of the place, with its communal seating (as well as two-tops and booths) and the funky flea-market decor of damask-pattern wallpaper and mismatched light fixtures. And we certainly support the mission of the restaurant, which donates a meal (not tacos exactly, but rather 22 cents per meal to buy scientifically developed rice packs) to Feed My Starving Children, a charity feeding hungry children in 60 countries.

But while we like the restaurant's figurative flow, we loathe its structural flow -- or lack thereof.

Not only is Tacos 4 Life located in a cramped Shackleford Crossings shopping center lot with too little parking for its constant customer turnover, it's terribly designed.

There is only one -- one! -- rather narrow opening that functions as the entrance and the exit for the entire restaurant. That alone makes it tricky to navigate, especially for anyone driving anything bigger than a Smart Car or skateboard. If that weren't enough, the drive-through speaker is close to that entrance, so cars lined up there add to the congestion (though service during a to-go trip proved somewhat speedy). We'd recommend customers who want to avoid the chaos to simply park in the more ample lot across the way and walk.

Expect to encounter a line at the ordering counter and some anxiety that there won't be a seat -- at least at peak lunch and dinner times -- while the restaurant is still new. We were impressed with bustling Tacos 4 Life's keep-it-moving efficiency. Any lines moved quickly, and there was always an open table.

We were also impressed with how quickly they got appetizers out. As soon as we fetched our drinks (Pepsi products, tea and the slightly watery Famous Mustache Fruit Punch, served in cute theme cups) and claimed a table, a runner delivered metal trays (Tacos 4 Life's preferred plates) with our chips and dips.

Pick a dip: queso, guacamole or salsa (in personal or table sizes, $2.15-$6.64). Or pick all three (table-size Ultimate Trio, $6.92). All come with a pile of crisp tortilla chips dusted with "our phenomenal house seasoning." We also dusted them with a bit more salt. The creamy cheese dip was flavorful without being fiery, as was the full-bodied tomato salsa. Balanced without any ingredient being too bold, the guacamole tasted fresh and lively.

Tacos 4 Life's bread and butter -- well, tortillas and sour cream -- are tacos, about 15 signature varieties, featuring chicken, steak, pork, beef, seafood and vegetables, and served in soft flour tortillas or in "puffy" tortilla shells. The tacos are sold individually ($2.89-$4.98) or as a twosome with rice ($6.55-$10.22). We tried several, and here were our favorites in descending order:

• Chicken Bacon Ranchero: Chicken, smoky strips of bacon, salsa, ranch and plenty of cheese, served in Tacos 4 Life's amazingly sturdy airy shell. Bacon always wins.

• Thai Peanut: A flour tortilla embracing chunks of chicken and a variety of vegetables, including avocado, in a rich peanut sauce. This makes a strong argument for the future of MexicAsian fusion.

• Basic Beef: There seemed to be a bit more sour cream, jack cheese and pico de gallo than there was ground beef in this puffy taco. But it was good. Basically.

• Chipotle Steak: The meat was a bit chewy in this puffy taco dressed with sauteed onions and peppers, jack cheese and pico de gallo, and we didn't get much of a punch from the chipotle aioli. Those are our beefs.

• Ono Shrimp: The menu description sounded so tempting -- "our famous pineapple ono sauce, green onions, pineapple, lettuce and toasted coconut on a flour tortilla." But the tropical taco of grilled shrimp (fried was another option) reminded us of suntan lotion. The ono was an "oh, no."

Besides tacos, there are nachos ($6.04 Classic or $7.25 Ultimate); add proteins for $1.75-$3.50. And there are quesadillas ($7.22 or $9.75).

The Chicken Quesadilla ($7.22), a flour tortilla embracing grilled chicken, jack cheese and queso, and garnished with lettuce, pico de gallo and a side of chipotle aioli, was enormous, especially for lunch. That it also came with a choice of a side (I chose the very nice Mexi Side Salad with lettuce, black bean salsa, jack cheese, tortilla strips, usually $2.25) took it over the top.

Other sides options: cilantro lime rice ($1.54), refried beans ($1.92), and maybe our favorite Mexican side of all time, the cream-style corn ($2.25), featuring buttery kernels with cotija cheese and fresh cilantro.

Tacos 4 Life also serves salad and rice bowls ($6.36 or $8.76, choose romaine lettuce or cilantro lime rice) that can be customized with proteins ($1.75-$3.50).

My friend ordered the BBQ Chicken Rice Bowl ($8.76) -- cilantro lime rice topped with grilled barbecue chicken, black bean salsa, gouda cheese, crispy tortilla strips and served with southwest ranch dressing. She said: "I am glad they served the dressing on the side, because it was totally unnecessary. The barbecue sauce was plenty saucy to coat the entire dish. Tastewise, it was full of flavor -- mostly of the barbecue sauce, which I liked. Sizewise, it was just right. However, it was served in the same metal bowls my pets eat out of, which is kind of hip and cool and ... creepy."

There's a three-item kids menu of tacos, burritos and a quesadilla ($4.99-$5.99, $2 upcharge if ordered by anyone over 12). And for kids of any age, there are chocolate chunk and snickerdoodle cookies ($1.25 each, two for $2.25) for dessert.

Not that we ever needed them on top of a meal.

After all, Tacos 4 Life does a good job of feeding people. Here and abroad (more than 62,239 meals donated from this location alone when last we checked the website) too.

Weekend on 03/30/2017

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