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Tacos Arandas El Amish
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Feast for taste buds at tableside taqueria

I wondered why someone would open a taqueria across the street from George’s International Market, a fantastic place for authentic tacos, but any doubts I had about Tacos Arandas El Amish were erased as soon as I walked in.

In the back kitchen area of this narrow, spruced-up store next to Mad Anthony Brewing Co., I saw a beautiful rack of pork rotating on a vertical spit in an electric broiler like those used for gyros. The juices dripped down the side of the seasoned al pastor pork, basting it with every turn, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into one.

About every taqueria in Fort Wayne serves al pastor – chunks of pork marinated in dried chiles, which give it a deep red hue – but I have never seen it cooked this traditional way here; it is usually just prepared on a griddle.

The extra expense Tacos Arandas El Amish put into the cooker was worth every penny as its al pastor is the best I have ever had. The meat, dressed traditionally with just chopped onions and cilantro, was tender and the chiles gave it just a hint of spice. But shaving the meat off the cooker gave the tacos a beautiful mix of caramelized, slightly crunchy outside pieces and soft, juicy slices from closer to the spit.

Tacos are it at Tacos Arandas El Amish, and they were sizable. They were double-wrapped with corn tortillas – always a plus for traditional tacos – and had generous portions of meat.

Besides the al pastor, there were carne asada steak, chorizo, cabeza (beef from the head) and one I was not familiar with, buché. Each was translated into English on a chalkboard near the cash register, but next to buché it just said “fried pork.” I asked my waitress for a more detailed description, but she struggled to comprehend even the most basic requests, and her only answer was “pork.”

I went ahead and ordered one, as did all of my dining companions. The buché tacos were filled with strips of somewhat greasy, fatty pork bits. They were tasty with a rich pork flavor, but texturally challenging, and it was clear they were by no means slices of tenderloin. It turns out, buché is pig stomach. It was the best pig stomach I have ever had, but also the only pig stomach I have ever had, and I would probably pass next time given the unpleasant feel in my mouth.

Before my tacos arrived, my server brought bowls of sliced radishes and cucumbers to cool the palate and a carousel of salsas to garnish the tacos. There was a green tomatillo salsa verde, which added a refreshing flavor but no heat, and two dark reddish-brown varieties with specs of dried chiles that were moderately hot. I could not discern any difference between the two dark salsas, and I asked my server whether they were the same but had no luck getting an answer. The final salsa was a chunky mix of peppers and onions including bright orange habaneros. If you need some heat, it will provide plenty.

If you use too much of that habanero salsa, Tacos Arandas El Amish offers creamy, cinnamon-spiked horchata or jamaica (hibiscus-flavored) aqua fresca, a variety of fresh fruit smoothies and canned soda, including the Mexican Jarritos brand. The smoothies – I tried a melon – are whipped in the blender to be extra frothy and light and were topped with a dusting of cinnamon, as was the horchata.

Next to the al pastor, my second favorite taco was the cabeza. The beef was stringy, kind of like pot roast, and extra fatty, which made it extra moist. That fat also made it much richer than your typical piece of pot roast.

I had mixed reviews on the chorizo. My first taste came in a combo taco with carne asada. This chorizo seemed bland and the steak, although decent in terms of moisture and texture, was not seasoned and produced little flavor.

My second taste of chorizo came during a different week and with no steak. This sausage was spicy and provided that punch I expect from a good chorizo taco. Maybe it was a different, better batch of chorizo or maybe it was just the bland steak that held back the first serving.

With such economical prices to go with the generous servings, I will be back at Tacos Arandas El Amish and, dare I say, it is likely to be my new go-to place for tacos. The “spruced-up” restaurant is bright and welcoming with its yellow walls and array of Mexican paintings, sculptures and other artsy items. The only problem with the atmosphere was the noise. Two TVs blared Telemundo – which for some reason has been the norm at every taqueria I have been to – and there were whirring blenders and loud chopping echoing from the kitchen.

But it was refreshing to find a taqueria with tableside service, even if it was hard to communicate, because the employees were smiling, friendly and appreciative.

So if a little noise and a little patience with my servers is all I have to accept to get the best al pastor tacos I have ever had, so be it.

Restaurant: Tacos Arandas El Amish

Address: 2012 Broadway

Phone: 420-2731

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes, but tight confines

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Tacos ($2), aqua frescas ($1.50), smoothies ($2.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.