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Purists May Scoff, but Stoked Tacos & Tequila Gets a Lot Right

Walking into Stoked Tacos & Tequila feels like stumbling onto a film set — the set of one of those ’80s beach movies in which neon-pink, yellow and blue clothing from Ocean Pacific was considered fashionable. A pink and white Volkswagen bus is the biggest prop in the front of the restaurant. A wall in back is adorned with mounted skateboards, and the chairs are in those aforementioned bright colors. It’s normal for classic Led Zeppelin and AC/DC tunes to hammer away at the overhead speakers, but not so loudly as to be annoying. It’s just an interesting anachronism.

This was a troubled spot for restaurants for years. El Patio had a decent run but rebranded to Xuco Xicana, which featured critically acclaimed interior and coastal Mexican food by chef Jonathan (“J.J.”) Jones that never got the following it deserved. (He’s now serving up some of the same fare at El Big Bad downtown.) Then, it was Cook & Collins for about two years. The most interesting thing that ever happened there was when cocktail bar Spare Key opened upstairs. Sadly, that’s gone now, too.

Stoked Tacos & Tequila, though, might be exactly the concept that belongs there. Inspired by Big Star in Chicago’s Wicker Park district, it’s hip enough for the young, pub-crawling crowd that roams Midtown on Friday and Saturday nights — the ones who need ballast and another shot of tequila before they wander down the street.

The food, though, is darn good — good enough to lure even jaded Houston diners who don’t dig the Midtown weekend scene and can get pretty much anything they want in this multicultural city of culinary riches. Weeknight lunch and dinner times are peaceful. Orders are filling, delivered to tables quickly and at reasonable prices.

One of the first orders of business for the owners, a friendly red-bearded guy named Keith Doyle and a friendly black-bearded chef, Adam Puskorius, was to rip out the center section of booths that divided the former Cook & Collins space. The booths have been replaced by highboy seats and tables, and the space has a much more open, friendly feel to it now.
Tacos come two to an order — and that’s part of why the meals are both reasonable and satisfying. Customers can choose either flour or corn tortillas. The signature Stoked rendition is the queso taco, which sports a grilled, gooey slab of asadero seared to a fetching brown crust. Lively avocado chunks, pico de gallo, fresh cilantro and a swath of tomatillo sauce lend exactly the fresh color and texture needed.

The queso tends to vary by visit — sometimes it’s thin and drippy, sometimes thicker, other times a little more spicy and interesting — but it was never not compelling and flavorful. It’s the kind to buy a quart of and take to a party, and far preferable to the tame, slightly sweet salsas — which are not free, by the way. Three dollars gets a red salsa, a green salsa and chips. Still, a box of leftover chips were crunchy the next day, and Houston’s humidity is the mortal enemy of crispness. There’s something to be said for that.

Stoked is one of the few places that understand the allure of Frito pie served right in the single-serving bag. The corn chips are topped with a layer of silky refried bean dip and a heap of chopped brisket, and then the whole mess is garnished with chopped onion, cilantro, crema and Valentina hot sauce. It’s best to contain this beast within the bag lest it escape and wreak havoc on someone’s clothing.

Feeding a crowd? Aim for a couple of Norteños, $13 mammoth tacos served on wooden boards. A large flour tortilla is loaded with sliced smoked brisket seasoned with adobe-coriander barbecue sauce, so much so that the tortilla gapes open. As with all its tacos, Stoked includes fresh and crunchy veggies — in this case slices of avocado, sliced radishes and cilantro. The contents get one more hit of flavor with a generous splash of salsa verde, then the massive envelope of a tortilla is toasted until the bubbles start to turn golden brown.
The only consistent issue is a tendency for roasted meats to be a little too dry. It happened multiple times with the pastor (marinated and spit-roasted pork) as well as with the Stoked street tacos, which employ lime and Tajín-seasoned skirt steak. (The brisket, on the other hand, was consistently moist.) While that’s quickly remedied with a squirt of the excellent Yellow Bird habanero or Serrano hot sauce available on every table, this should be an option, not a necessity. (There also used to be a lush red jalapeño sauce, which was no longer available on our final review visits. A server told us that people kept stealing it. What kind of loser steals hot sauce?)

The fried red fish taco, on the other hand, is consistently exquisite, sporting thick, deeply browned batter that enrobes a thick plank of white, flaky fish. It’s hard to see the fish at first, because it’s covered in shreds of green and red cabbage, thick slices of carrots and cilantro leaves. Wrapped up in the tortilla and combined in one bite, it’s a crunchy, refreshing experience.

As should be the case with a restaurant that has “Tequila” in its name, Stoked is an outstanding place for kicking back with a margarita. The execution is simple, clean and uncomplicated. The namesake margarita with smoky mezcal, lime juice and orange liqueur arrives in a glass with a smoked salt rim. Because mezcal isn’t inexpensive, at full price the drink is a stout $11, but is two dollars off between 2 and 7 p.m.

People can save a few bucks by ordering the classic margarita with tequila, which is $9 at regular price and $7 at happy hour. Connoisseurs, though, might peer at the back bar for some interesting bottles, which include unusual mezcals and even a Mexican version of fernet called Fernet-Vallet. It’s not the rare, vast selection that The Pastry War carries, but a respectable collection nonetheless.

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Purists who seek “authentic,” old-school Mexican food might scoff at Stoked Tacos & Tequila, writing it off as a place for hipster tacos. Perhaps it is. So? It’s a restaurant that serves food made with care, a place where people can afford to eat often and will likely want to revisit.

When it comes to reviews, that’s quite a compliment.

Stoked Tacos & Tequila
2416 Brazos, 832-701-1973. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Tuesdays through Sundays.

The Bag (Frito pie) $5
Tex-Mex queso $7
Stoked street tacos $6
Taco al pastor $8
Taco de brisket $8
Taco Norteño $13
House margarita $9
Stoked margarita $11

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