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Tiptoe through the tacos at Fonda la Taquiza 

Eastside restaurant holds hidden treasures for exploratory eaters

Fonda La Taquiza turned out to be short on charm — some booth cushions were split and the dining room has a thrown-together look — but the food, ah, the food. As Charlotte's Latino community grows to 13 percent of the population, more Latino restaurateurs, like Mexican-born Taquiza owner Ruben Granados, can boldly offer a greater variety of indigenous dishes, yet still treat the comfort foods of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador (Charlotte's largest Latino groups) with enormous respect.

Happily, we had no sooner taken our seats at Taquiza than the server dropped off complimentary bowls of spicy bean soup. She murmured something about the menus and left us to contemplate these two lengthy rosters dotted with photographs. One offered a roundup of burritos, tacos, quesadillas, sopes, sandwiches and entrées while the second featured los molcajetes, traditional family-styled dishes with protein, rice and beans, fried cheese, and molcajete salsa in a quantity (and price) for four. A molcajete is the Mexican stone mortar.

While the east side has blossomed with all sorts of smart and eclectic eateries, the Taquiza menus hold hidden treasures for the exploratory eater. In pollo con tajadas, a Honduran dish, a hill of fried green plantains and chicken take center stage while technique is manifest in an oozing trio of Salvadoran pupusas. Most everything on the menu is delicious, if not amazing at these prices (entrées $7 to $10.50).

Fonda la Taquiza opened in September 2013 and is Granados' third restaurant venture in the area. He also owns Deli Sabor Latino and is co-owner of Fonda Las Cazuelas in the University area. Taquiza occupies a space that was once the CL-award-winning Cocina Latina, a Mexican eatery known for barbacoa de borrego (lamb barbecue). La Taquiza still serves this dish, made in-house, on Saturdays and Sundays.

At Taquiza, Granados has the latitude to do what he wants. Dishes are hand-crafted and arrive one or two at a time. Our first wave included a griddled steak quesadilla studded with iceberg lettuce, crema and garnished with a spry pico de gallo. Next were the Mexican gorditas (which means fat little ones) huastecas, similar to Venezuelan arepas, only bigger. Shredded beef or the classic pork rind, farmer cheese and chopped onion are exquisitely cocooned within a pale yellow corn flour pastry.

If you are wise, though, you will save your calories for a spread of tacos. With a dozen permutations from shrimp to fish and with a price of $1.85, you cannot go wrong. Even though pastor (marinated grilled pork) tacos are peddled at restaurants around town, the ones at Taquiza offer a mosaic of flavor and texture in which each bite is slightly different, so that you keep eating, captivated, until it is gone. Granados says his secret is in the marinade. Fortunately, these taco ingredients — the shredded or barbecued beef, marinated pork and grilled chicken — resurface throughout the menu on sandwiches, stuffed into hand pies or rolled into enchiladas; each time transforms a common dish into a flavor fest.

On specific days, $1 specials are offered on tacos and pupusas and the place bustles. Thursdays feature a mariachi band and is also one-dollar beer night. Pure fun. The beer roster includes both Mexican and domestic bottles.

Desserts, like the rustic flan, don't live up to what precedes them. But that's OK. For maximum enjoyment, approach the menu without preconceived notions (unless you are from Mexico, Honduras or El Salvador, or intimately familiar with the variations of these cuisines). At its heart, Taquiza is a neighborhood eatery with a convivial vibe, but has the mettle to encourage diners to take a spin around the cuisines of Charlotte's largest ex-pat communities, and that is a rewarding trip indeed.

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