A few years ago, I visited Tacos el Tio in Egg Harbor Township as part of a restaurant review we were doing in our sister publication, A.C. Weekly. My colleague and I ran into a slew of problems from chips that were too thick to empanadas that were too dry and ended up walking away pretty unimpressed with the overall experience.
But, that was two years ago, and I am a firm believer in second chances (except for you, Harvey Weinstein). Also, I was in the mood for a margarita and last time we really just focused on food, so I figured it was worth revisiting to scope out the bar and see if things had improved over the years.
The mid-afternoon crowd at Tacos el Tio was substantial for a Sunday. We opted for a high-top table by the bar and were lucky enough to be just in time for their daily happy hour, which runs from 4 to 6 p.m. and includes half-priced apps along with a variety of drink specials.
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Their list of flavored margaritas seemed interesting, but as I read the description of them, they were listed as being “on tap.”
Making a good margarita is a fairly simple process, but should never be as simple as pulling a tap. This is not a pint of Michelob we’re talking about here.
I inquired further about what “on tap” meant within the context of a margarita. “We make it in the back, but run it through the tap,” was the answer my server gave me. This sounded intentionally vague, needlessly complicated and anything but fresh, but I opted to try the coconut variety just to see what this silliness was all about.
What I received was about what I expected — an overly synthetic-tasting concoction that was clearly made with sour mix. The coconut flavor mercifully masked some of the more unpleasant aspects of the drink, but nothing could truly save this cocktail.
The other members of my party fared better, one by simply ordering a Negro Modelo and the other by getting lucky with a rather tasty mojito that was well-balanced and quite good.
We ordered a few items off the half-priced apps menu. I wanted to revisit the empanadas, as last time I recall us describing them as “el dry-o” and strongly recommending they add some cheese to the mixture inside. Sadly, it seems our advice fell on deaf ears, as these empanadas were once again stuffed with shredded chicken that was so dry it nearly made me start coughing. They should really take these off the menu.
Things were not all bad though, as the chicken quesadilla was moist and delicious, and good enough to come back for. We also got two orders of tacos — one chicken and one chorizo. While both had decent flavor, again both were served without cheese and were very dry. Slathering them with sour cream helped some, but you shouldn’t have to do that. The flavors were actually pretty good, and if the meat was cooked a bit less and paired with some guac, cheese or aioli, they may have been a home run.
Up until 13 years ago — and since 1990 — what happened at Carmine’s in New York stayed at Carmine’s New York.
The bar gets big points for its tequila selection. The list of brands is long and plentiful, and as I was perusing it, I noticed in small print that they were offering to make a “craft margarita” from any tequila on the list for an additional $4 beyond the price of the liquor itself. What is a craft margarita? Heck if I know. Frankly, it sounds made up.
Naturally, I inquired with the bartender.
“Oh, a craft margarita is made with fresh lime juice and agave nectar instead of sour mix,” he said. Uh huh. In other words, it’s just a properly made margarita that they found a new way to charge more for.
But after struggling through the tap version, I was more than ready for a “craft margarita.” I ordered mine with Casamigos blanco tequila and waited patiently to see if there would be any difference between this and the sour bomb I had earlier.
The difference was night and day.
I don’t care what kind of preconceived notions I may have about a place, when they get something right I will always say so, and I have to hand it to Tacos el Tio — they made one of the best margaritas I have had in all of South Jersey. It made me scratch my head as to why they would even offer the cheaper version? They clearly have the skill and know-how to make the drink properly and could charge whatever they want for it. It’s that good.
We left Tacos el Tio with a mixed bag of feelings. While many of the same mistakes were still there from our last visit — and a few new ones were added — I must say that if you know how to order the right way, you can enjoy some great food and cocktails at this spot. A few easily solveable tweaks were made in the kitchen and behind the bar, and this would be a truly great cantina. Hopefully, that day is just around the corner.