Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that anyone reading this article has eaten at a Chipotle, or a Moe’s, or a Qdoba, or a Tijuana Flats, probably within the last month. I love these chains just as much as anyone in the United States for an easy meal, but I don’t think any of them are necessarily groundbreaking. The ubiquity of these restaurants, I believe, has a staling effect on an eater’s perception of what Mexican-American style food can be. Everyone enjoys a burrito, bowl or otherwise, but nobody is writing home about the endless identical burritos they’ve eaten at any or all of these establishments.
Owned by the Nana’s family of restaurants (Nana’s, Nanasteak), Nanataco is a departure from the fine dining of its relatives into the accessible and wildly successful fast-casual business model. In its airy “garage-turned-dining-room,” diners can chow down on Mexican-American staples that are a bit more thoughtful than the competition’s without deviating wildly from the price point that they are used to. The bill may be slightly more than your Chipotle order, add guac, but that extra coin buys you a slew of improvements over any chain. First and foremost: Nanataco’s homemade corn tortillas are among the best I have ever tasted, unbelievably fluffy and boldly flavored.
They boast a dizzying assortment of options for topping and stuffing their offerings. According to their menu, there are ‘the meats’, including spiced pork butt, shredded garlic beef, and rotisserie chicken. For something a little different, they also have fish, shrimp, calamari, and oysters, each grilled or fried. Finally, they offer a few ‘dirty meats’, like pork belly, beef tongue, and house smoked duck, rotated on a monthly basis. If that wasn’t enough to get your head spinning, there are weekly specials and vegan/vegetarian alternatives as well!
All of these selections are backed up by a beverage program that’s perfectly catered to Nanataco’s unique style. Their margaritas are $5 every day, with a few ‘premium’ variants that incorporate nicer liquors for a little extra. Cans of Tecate and Bud Light are $2.50, and of course you can also enjoy a Corona or Modelo. Nanataco wouldn’t be a true Durham restaurant without plenty of local craft beer choices as well. For the kids in your crowd or the kid in you, they even carry a few flavors of Jarritos.
Both times I have visited Nanataco, there has been a line near or out the door. Do not be afraid: the staff is definitely used to this and they will do everything in their power to line up a table for you and your guests before you are ready to sit down. I would like to especially complement their extremely capable ‘front of house’ personnel for helping to keep this well-oiled machine of a restaurant moving. Now, on to the food:
Their queso ($6.50 with chips) is rich and gooey, and you can tell it’s homemade by the way it strings and pulls after every dip. Nanataco applies this liberally to each order of nachos, but they also don’t turn into nacho soup like other inferior baskets can. I’ve already sung the praises of their corn tortillas, so rest assured the chips are excellent as well. Although delicious, this wasn’t really a major attraction for me. It’s tough to make a queso that really stands out without deviating from the tried-and-true formula that everyone loves.
My date ordered the chorizo on her nachos ($7.50), which proved to be the perfect vehicle. The meat is heavily spiced and stands out well against the bevy of toppings and healthy dose of queso these nachos receive. As opposed to other crumbly chorizos, it was texturally closer to ground beef; tender and substantial without devolving into a powdery pool of grease.
I had one of the weekly specials: tuna tacos with tomato jam ($6.75 for 2). The fish was cooked to perfection with Instagram-worthy grill marks, imparting a charred taste that was furthered by the sweet and acidic tomato. With a bit of crunch from iceberg lettuce and a dab of Valentina (my own addition), these tacos blew me away with depth of flavor completely disproportionate to their size and price tag.
Presented with so many meat options, I had to try some tacos ($7.50 for 3) just for a taste of Nanataco’s variety. On the left, the fried calamari taco with arugula and Valentina aioli. The squid was lightly battered and crisp, while the aioli added moisture and spice to bring the ingredients together. In the middle is another weekly special, the ropa vieja, topped with iceberg and crema. I haven’t eaten much Cuban food for comparison, but the beef was fall-apart tender and tinged with cumin and tomato, and thus fit naturally into a taco. The final taco was filled with chili-rubbed pork butt, iceberg, and pico. The pork is smoky and succulent but this taco gave me a perfect opportunity to take it over the top with something extra from Nanataco’s extensive salsa bar. I chose a mango-habanero concoction and wasn’t disappointed. It had serious heat but the the saccharine mango kept everything in line, and I always dig tropical flavors matched with pork.
Even after hitting this place twice in the same week, I can’t wait to come back and try some dirty meats. Nanataco seems to me like an incredibly smart restaurant, one that makes it so quick and easy to eat high-quality food served by a local business. It doesn’t hurt that they specialize in an accessible cuisine, the demand for which has already been proven by national competitors like Chipotle and Moe’s. Plus, being an independent business means that they have the freedom to flesh out their rock-solid fast-casual concept with things like their stellar beverage program and usage of local ingredients. Anyone who’s paying attention knows that the push for local food is a defining force in restaurant culture. There’s something that just feels better about eating in a restaurant that’s unique to your area, and eating at Nanataco feels (and tastes) pretty darn good.