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CHEAP EATS: Taco Bueno's food fast, but tastes and looks fresh

by Eric E. Harrison | March 28, 2008 at 1:56 a.m.

— Taco Bueno's motto, "It's more Bueno," is as blatant an example of Spanglish as you're likely to find.

Linguistic mayhem aside, the offerings of this fast-Mexican chain, which recently opened its second central Arkansas location (the first, 10114 Mabelvale Plaza Drive in Little Rock, opened in 2006) in what is becoming Maumelle's restaurant row, are "more Bueno," or at least more than those at that other national taco chain.

The food tastes fresher, more of it appears to actually have been made on the premises (as opposed to shipped in on a truck and reheated out of a bucket) and there's a greater menu variety, especially more than outlets of that other national taco chain that have been grafted onto outlets of a national chicken chain.

Of course, Taco Bueno doesn't quite measure up to afull-service, sit-down Mexican restaurant like Mi Burrito or Senor Tequila, both of which are within hailing distance on Maumelle Boulevard in North Little Rock.

The trade-off is only a buck or two on a platter and a minute or two in terms of speed, considering that Mexican foodin general is inexpensive and comes out of the kitchen pretty darn quickly.

The ground beef in Taco Bueno's crispy beef taco ($1.09) is ground a little coarser and tastes a lot better. You get roughly the same mix of pliable shredded cheese, lettuce and diced tomatoes, but the shell is almost an inch longer and it stays crisp longer (we deliberately let ours sit for a few minutes, about as long as it takes for one of those competitor's taco shells to get soggy).

Taco Bueno's Wholotta Platter ($6.59) turned out to be more food than humans should be allowed to eat in one sitting, or maybe even two sittings, including a crispy beef taco; a "Chilada," Taco Bueno's version of an enchilada, a slightly rubbery flour tortilla wrapped around ground beef (a chicken version is also available) and lightly coated with a layer of queso and chili; a "Muchaco," a pita-bread taco; and a puddle of yellowqueso (real cheese, which we know because that real-cheese skin formed across the top) in a small tortilla-chip bowl.

Taco Bueno has recently added tamales to its menu. They're fast-food tamales, of course - in fact, our Tamale Platter ($5.49) came out of the kitchen before we'd filled our drink cup - but reasonably spicy, with a more than generous chili-queso topping (which gave us something to do with the bag of fresh, crisp tortilla chips that came with it).

Both platters come with "slow-simmered" refried beans that are in the same dry style of, and nearly the equal of, the beans at La Hacienda's various outlets; better-than-average, fairly flavorful Mexican rice; a dollop of sour cream; and a dollop of fresh, chunky avocado (as opposed to pureed - we found actual, identifiable pieces) with a nice little kick.

And there's a salsa bar with two kinds of salsa, one chunky,one "standard," plus pico de gallo, jalapenos, lemons and onions for garnish or for whatever purpose you might put them to, with tiny little paper cups in which to carry them to your table, booth or banquette.

Soft drinks are a little on the steep side - a small cup is $1.39, but you get free refills, or at least you do for the time being. Right there on the side of the cup, something we have never seen before, is the capital-letter legend, "Refill offer subject to change or cancellation without notice."

The Maumelle Taco Bueno actually has Hispanics working in the semi-open kitchen and even behind the counter, which is somehow reassuring. The staff seems to be genuinely helpful and friendly, which is something you don't always see in fast-food establishments.

The color scheme is mostly buff and red, fairly cheery, as is the oldies radio station to which the sound system is tuned.

Taco Bueno Address: 102 Savannah Drive, Maumelle Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (drivethrough open later) Cuisine: Fast Mexican Credit cards: V, MC Alcoholic beverages: No Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 851-4464

Weekend, Pages 90 on 03/28/2008

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