When it comes to bright ideas, opening an alfresco taco stand in the dead of Cleveland winter might not sit near the top of the list. But that's precisely what Juan Vergara and his family have done with Hola Tacos, an "L.A.-style Mexican taco stand" in the Birdtown neighborhood of Lakewood.
Located in a former walk-up ice cream shop, the restaurant lacks indoor seating. But that's not to say that diners are left out in the cold. A sizeable portion of the front patio is shielded from the elements by thick, clear poly, while portable heaters do the rest. On a recent sunny afternoon, the solar gain managed to raise inside temps well above 70 degrees. If you prefer the cozy confines of your car, pull into one of six dedicated parking spots to be waited on drive-in style.
A decade ago, the Vergaras burst onto the food scene with the petite but popular Barroco Arepa Bar in Lakewood. That small shop would grow from a 12-seat fast-casual cafe to a spirited 80-seat full-service restaurant with full bar and live music. Acts 2 and 3 duplicated that winning formula on the east and west sides of town. The idea with Hola, Vergara said at the outset, was to keep things simple by focusing on a concise menu of regional Mexican tacos, tostadas and burritos.
Does Cleveland need another taco shop? That depends on the taco shop. But if you're talking about one that grills its carne asada over a real wood fire behind that shop, slices its al pastor off a twirling trompo, slow-roasts its carnitas until the pork is succulent and supple, and concocts bright, zippy salsas to gild those lilies, then the answer is a definite "si." Are you paying more for the pleasure? Also yes, with tacos generally running a buck more than the going rate.
That supplement goes to higher-quality and better-tasting meats like those above, as well as tender braised beef, peppery chicken tinga and cochinita pibil (luscious adobo-marinated, slow-cooked pork). Those items get piled into a pair of soft corn tortillas and garnished with fresh toppers like radishes, diced white onions, pickled red onions, shaved white cabbage, cilantro and grated queso fresco, depending on the taco. Tacos come three to an order ($12) and mixing and matching is permitted (with a 75-cent surcharge).
Too often, what sinks an otherwise fine taco is an improper ratio of hot ingredients to cold. Hola hits the mark by being generous with the meats and judicious with the toppings. They're garnishes, after all. These weighty tacos also are doubled-up with corn tortillas, a method that adds bulk while aiding consumption.
The same selection of meats finds its way onto the tostadas ($14), an item that deserves more attention than it gets. Three crispy corn tortillas slicked with housemade refried beans form the base for a mountain of meats, shredded cabbage, julienned radish, avocado sauce, queso crema and queso fresco. These are definitely knife-and-fork tostadas.
The Chile Colorado burrito ($8.25-$10.25) is a well-constructed beast that is roughly one-third protein to two-thirds yellow rice and beans. Again, the kitchen employs a light touch when it comes to toppings, swapping the customary onslaught of cheese and sauce for a drizzle of smoky ranchero sauce, a sprinkle of salty queso fresco and a shower of crisp radish batons.
At $17, the carnitas al carbon is the most expensive dish in (or should we say, out of) the house, but it also might be the best. A large portion of juicy, slightly fatty and flavorful slow-roasted pork is nestled into a large bed of golden rice, which itself sits above a thin layer of smooth refried beans. Like a snow-capped mountain, this peak is mounded high with thin-shaved white cabbage, radish matchsticks and chopped cilantro.
In terms of appetizers, the list is pretty short. There's a creamy, well-seasoned guacamole ($6) that comes with round, flat tostadas. A cup of beef consomme ($2) is ridiculously beefy and satisfying, but also bright with lime and herbs. Hola also serves esquites ($5), essentially a cob-less version of the popular street food elote with kernels of grilled corn tossed with onions, peppers, mayo and spices.
Early Barroco fans shouted from the rooftops about the killer arepa sauces. At Hola, the choices are fewer but no less delectable. There's a smoky-spicy chile de arbol, cool and creamy avocado sauce and refreshing queso crema. If you're a heat-seeker, ask for an order of the pineapple habanero salsa, which is pure fruit fire.
Plans call for converting a neighboring structure into a lounge and speakeasy with indoor seating for Hola Taco customers.