If there’s one thing Uber drivers love: it’s ferrying the squad through drive-through at two in the morning. Often times they end up with a taco or six. El Rey stays open until 3 a.m. Thursday to Saturday and while it’s quick and easy to order take out, dining in late night is especially lively. Located on the Washington strip, and right down the street from Concrete Cowboy, Clutch, HandleBar— the list goes on— it’s a no brainer stop on the way home—or wherever you’re headed.
“When I’m out and on Washington it’s a must I stop at El Rey for chips, queso, and egg and chorizo tacos; babes call me at 832-372-39&*,” says Jordan Villarreal a.k.a. Neighbor.
A nostalgic transport back to the good ole days in Havana—something none of us have experienced—is festive indeed. A trio of men amicably converse in Spanish swiveling back and forth on bar stools while drinking midnight coffee. A solo, weathered biker exits the diner with a paper bag which he stuffs into his Harley sidesaddle. Two women dressed for the club have a heart to heart, working out their issues. Headphones and a hoodie alone in the corner sits lost in a basket of tacos.
Sun stained photos of Cuban dancers and scenery authenticate the space as rhythmic Latin clicks on the loudspeaker above. Plaques both weathered and new line the wall— #1 Cuban Cuisine, Best Fast Food, Top Ten Cheap Eats, even a nod in Playboy’s April 2005 issue.
The menu hits it with regulars and newcomers alike and the kitchen is always well staffed—waiting is never an eternity. Starting at midnight, Thursday through Saturday, breakfast tacos are available and ring in at $2.50 a pop. Each is spread with refried beans and topped with fried egg pieces paired with common sidekicks like chorizo, bacon, ham, and potato. The Egg Cuban Taco, filled with black beans and plantains, is unique and delicious.
Regular taco’s, $2.85 each, cover carnitas, al pastor, and fajitas respectively. The standout is the Shrimp Tempura taco; two to three pieces of puffy fried shrimp rest on a bed of cabbage wet with cilantro sauce. This sauce is the bull of all sauces at El Rey and finds its way on a lot of tacos. Rightfully so, with a hint of garlic bite at the end it's kind of addicting. Corn tortillas are preferable, but again, that’s a snowflake decision.
El Rey offers flour, corn, and whole wheat tortillas. Speaking of whole wheat, what’s up Vegans, the Cuban Vegan Taco filled with black beans, avocado, and fried plantains on a corn tortilla sounds pretty crushable.
The Torta section offers a lot of the same taco combinations on toasted bolillo bread. Tortas taste better when dining in and are served on a different bolillo than the ones found four for a dollar at the grocery store. It’s a little bit softer and more flavorful. The Grilled Fish Torta is excellent ordered with extra habanero mayo on the side and lime wedges for squeezing on the fish. Mad respect for smearing refried beans on everything, by the way. This sandwich also comes with cabbage, avocado, and crispy tortilla strips and is big enough to eat half in the moment, half later.
Like Neighbor said, ordering Chips and Queso is a little bit mandatory. Warm chips served alongside a Styrofoam cup of plastic-cheesey queso for $5 is practically a late night food group. Also found in the Side Orders section are sweet, caramelized plantain logs which make a happy ending every time.
El Rey Taqueria
The OG El Rey is open Thursday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Wednesday 7 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Midnight snacks galore.
Photo by Kate McLean