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Nathan Wood: Tio's tacos satisfy a Mexican food skeptic

By Nathan Wood, Daily Food Columnist
Published October 11, 2012

Let’s be blunt: I’m not a fan of Mexican food. Is it edible? Yes. Do I crave it on the reg? Definitely not. But from the moment I stepped onto campus, people couldn’t stop bragging about Tio’s Mexican Cafe (over on East Liberty). So after all the hype, and personal preferences aside, I decided to actually check it out — twice, as a matter of fact. And to tell the truth, it’s not all bad.

Dinner No. 1: Lotsa Tacos

Like most Mexican restaurants, Tio’s has a sizable variety of taco options. Since the tacos are small and my appetite is not, I choose five to try.

The Edamame Taco, my least favorite, is sorely characterized by displeasingly chewy Spanish rice and predictably bland soybeans. In Tio’s defense, though, it can be a difficult feat to flavor this insipid legume with any complexity. The only other notable quality is that this taco is a disaster to eat, so steer clear if on a first date.

Next, I try the Al Pastor, which features shredded pork loin and pineapple. The pork is finely seasoned, but tough and overcooked. And while the hot pineapple provides an exceptional flavor and texture contrast, there simply is not enough of it.

The Portobello Taco is a respectable option in the vegetarian category, boasting well-roasted mushroom caps whose texture is humbly paired with a spoonful of refried beans. The flavors are understated and mild.

The Fish Taco, a bold combination of deep-fried cod, jalapeño ranch dressing and citrus vinaigrette coleslaw, is a pleasure to eat. The cod is appropriately dense and flaky, and the batter surrounding it thick and crunchy. The jalapeño ranch is a pleasantly cool, punchy contrariety, and the citrus vinaigrette rounds out the dish with an acidic bite. Beware, though, that this taco has a surprisingly fiery aftertaste.

My favorite taco of the five, the Tingas, is a simple assembly of chicken, smoky chipotle sauce, onions, cilantro and lime. The layers of flavor successively hit my tongue: first sweet, then fiery, salty and acidic. The ingredients are crunchy, chewy and gone in three bites.

Dinner No. 2: Chips, Dips and … Blue Cheese Coleslaw?

Though I’m actually only mildly hungry this time around, I agree to revisit Tio’s with a group of friends to munch on a couple of appetizers. Up first are the tortilla chips. For my first dinner, I was too cheap to order them, but there’s no avoiding them this time around.

Honestly, I find it offensively singular that Tio’s thinks it appropriate to charge extra for something that people expect — and rightfully so — to be included with their meal. Imagine Olive Garden charging extra for breadsticks and salad. Pitiful, right?

Unfortunately, the chips are a letdown, completely standard in every way, and, truthfully, not exceedingly fresh. Hoping to mask their mediocrity, I dig into the three accompanying salsas: The first is as spiceless as water, the next hotter than the core of the sun and the last actually palatable.

But since I don’t particularly like salsa — though I will eat it on occasion, given there’s nothing more appetizing available — I order a side of refried beans to dip the chips in. The beans are prepared in-house, and you can tell, as they’re everything a good refried bean should be: rustically mashed, expertly salted, precisely cooked and most importantly, delectably gloppy. They’re not “the best beans you’ll ever have,” as the menu claims, but they’re pretty tasty, especially considering their lard-less preparation (a plus for you veggies out there).

So there I sit, barbarically glopping up my beans, when I notice the woman at the table next to me. What is she eating? Is that coleslaw? I pore over the menu until I finally find it: blue cheese coleslaw. And because I love blue cheese like Paula Deen loves butter, I promptly request a bowl. But, in the biggest culinary disappointment of my life, the slaw is inedible. Imagine how the sides of your tongue would curl under if you were to suck on a rotten lemon. Now imagine them locking in this position as curdles of sour milk and sauerkraut slide off the back of your tongue and down your throat. There, you’ve experienced Tio’s blue cheese coleslaw. I should have known better than to order a dish like this at a Mexican restaurant.

So it is on this (literally) sour note that I end my excursions to Tio’s. On the whole, the Mexican food here fares well in my book, which really is saying a lot given my general distaste of the cuisine. And while I can’t speak to the food’s authenticity, I can say the establishment is quite the hit, with Ann Arborites packing it every evening. So the next time you have a hankering for a toothsome taco, slide on up to Tio’s bar and join them. Just skip the coleslaw.