The newish Taco Milagro isn't your typical family-owned Mexican joint -- not when the family in question is the del Grande/Schiller clan. Celebrity chef Robert del Grande, along with his wife, Mimi, and in-laws Lonnie and Candace Schiller, already rule an impressive empire. Their domain includes the redoubtable Cafe Annie, whose fine-dining Southwestern food consistently earns accolades; the laid-back Rio Ranch, a Hill Country-ish place that produces upscale cowboy food; and the Cafe Express chain, whose fast-food-for-grownups concept clicked almost magically with the time-pressed hordes yearning for pesto.
Now the clan has adapted the Cafe Express formula to Mexican food, producing an upscale, moderately priced taqueria. Taco Milagro's bright but relatively minimalist Mexican decor is a universe apart from the ultra-authentic taquerias that line Washington Avenue. Forget the fluorescent lights and the Formica tables. Here, just inside the parking lot of an upscale strip mall, a pair of fountains burble soothingly on a pleasant outdoor patio; pretty tables and bright pastel chairs provide very pleasant outdoor seating: It's a stylish place where denizens of nearby River Oaks can feel quite comfortable. Were it not for Kirby's steady stream of traffic, you could imagine yourself in a Mexican town square or Italian piazza.
Candace Schiller herself picked the huge wooden doors -- Mexican colonial from the 1840s, no less. Pass through them, and you enter a zone where such sturdy antiques mingle comfortably with industrial stainless steel and cheerful kitsch. The dozen or so heavy steel tables and their oilcloth-covered chairs are crammed together tightly, so the well-dressed clientele sits nearly elbow-to-elbow. Noise intensifies the crowded feel: The concrete floor does nothing to absorb sound. To whisper intimacies, it's obvious that you'll have to go back outside.
It's not as obvious how you order your food. You're supposed to stand in line, a la Cafe Express, then use your receipt to claim your meal in five or ten minutes, when your number is called. It's hard to tell which line to stand in, and harder still to read the menu posted above the counter. (Paper copies are available, but you have to be at the counter to see them.)
Not that there's much to read: The menu is surprisingly short, its offerings limited to tamales, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, del Grande's version of fajitas and some standard side dishes -- the sanitized version of Mexican food preferred by the River Oaks set.
Once you've peered at that menu, you'll see that despite the fast 'n' casual atmosphere, Taco Milagro doesn't plan to undercut prices at mom-and-pop taquerias. Tortilla chips -- usually as free as oxygen -- cost a staggering $2.25; perhaps to soften the blow, they arrive in a spiffy brown paper bag. Spiffier still is the selection of salsas at the self-serve bar: a whopping eight varieties, ranging from a mild chipotle to an assertive Oaxacan, spicy enough to start beads of sweat down your brow. The bright-green tomatillo salsa is invitingly full of seeds and pepper pieces. The best of the lot include roasted tomatoes; available in both mild and spicy versions, those salsas are slightly sweet, with a rich, earthy flavor. And yes, the salsa bar also offers the other usual condiments of its genre: pico de gallo, limes, cilantro and jalapenos for those who just can't seem to get their food hot enough.
The entrees are likewise satisfying -- though, served a la carte, they may disconcert Tex-Mex fans long accustomed to heaping combo platters. In the tacos filled with queso fresco and rajas ($4.75), the gooey white cheese binds together the strips of roasted poblano pepper, and marinated onions add a nice sweetness. Unorthodox chicken tamales ($4.95) are beautifully presented in an open corn husk, the filling lolling on top of a bed of fluffy masa; rich, dark poblano chile sauce adds necessary moisture. Burritos ($5.95) also break with Tex-Mex tradition: Instead of large flour tortillas folded to envelop their fillings, we are faced with regular-sized corn tortillas, not unlike those used for tacos. (Both the chicken and sirloin versions were tasty enough that we wished they were larger.) Pork barbacoa enchiladas ($5.75) are topped with an excellent mole sauce with a distinct hint of bitter chocolate.
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Side dishes -- which, remember, must be ordered separately -- are hit and miss. The ranchero beans ($.75) taste pleasantly of smoked ham, and a small order of crisp pumpkin seeds ($.75) provides an interesting novelty. Mexican rice ($.75) -- a dish that ought to be a no-brainer to execute -- is mysteriously dry, its usual orange color mutated to dark brown.
Agua fresca translates literally as "refreshing water," and the two varieties provide marvelous alternatives to alcoholic drinks. The fresh-squeezed lime version ($1.75) is lip-puckeringly tart. Its mellower tropical cousin ($1.75) is a glorious orange color; its components include mango, guava and melon, and it has the thick, languorous consistency of a smoothie.
There are only two desserts to choose from, but both are marvelous. Dense, dome-shaped Mexican cookies ($.95 each) are the size of a fist, include pecans and almonds, and are dusted with confectioner's sugar. An order of flan "mas fino" ($2.95) brings a rich egg custard topped with cinnamon. At the bottom hides a welcome surprise: cajeta, a dark syrup made from caramelized sugar and milk. Authentic? Maybe -- but that's hardly the point. The point is that it tastes great.
Taco Milagro, 2555 Kirby, 522-1999.