THE RINALDO BROTHERS BRIGHTEN UP GUS’ PUB WITH THEIR TAKE ON TEX-MEX
“The space spoke to us as tacos,” says Tony Rinaldo, recounting the story behind opening Taco Lina’s, the taco counter currently situated inside famed North End dive bar Gus’ Pub. We’ve grabbed one of the low, dark brown tables scattered in the space between the Taco Lina’s counter, Gus’ corner stage (set for live music), and the bar itself. Tony and his brother, Sam, opened Taco Lina’s at the end of November 2018, after being approached by the owners of the pub. “We looked at the space and felt like tacos were the best fit,” says Tony.
It does feel that way when you step inside, through the door at the corner of Agricola and North Street. Once in, you are immediately face-to-face with the Taco Lina’s counter, their space (essentially just a corner of the pub) is painted bright purple and teal with pops of red. The vibrant yellow scorpion logo adorns the front of the self-service counter—it’s hard to miss. There are chile pepper lights (of course) and shiny red ceiling lamps—it’s busy and playful. The menu is not too serious, displayed on an ornately framed chalkboard behind the counter. It’s a quick service, and it makes perfect sense here.
“Our main thing was, we’re not trying to be authentic,” says Tony. “We wanted to do our own, creative touches.” A decision that’s proven sound—as Tony lets me know the best selling taco is the traditional Baja fish, but the fried chicken with house-made pimiento cheese is a very close second. Of course, a lot of people are looking for traditional Mexican-style tacos, so most of the menu is Mexican-inspired, and the chef uses authentic cooking techniques—think braised beef tongue, al pastor, and barbacoa—but they’re also having a bit of fun, and it works. Rotating features like Philly cheese steak and Big Mac tacos drive the point home.
At Taco Lina’s they actually make their fresh six-inch flour tortillas by hand daily, plus order in high-quality masa corn tortillas from a Mexican food supplier, so customers have their choice of flour or corn. On my visit, there are nine tacos plus a feature (donair taco), carne asada fries, nachos deluxe (fully loaded with queso cheese sauce) and sides like chips and salsa, house-cut fries, and refried beans. Small, but everything is covered—it’s all you need for a taco counter. The extensive collection of hot sauces that busily line the countertop definitely catch my eye. “Whenever we see new hot sauces, we pick them up,” says Tony. This explains the number—I count 15—including their house-made classic salsa roja, salsa verde, and a “hot hot hot” mango-habanero.
“Another key factor is offering a lot of vegetarian and vegan options,” says Tony. The selective menu thoughtfully makes room for two meatless tacos: deep-fried tofu and quinoa al pastor. “We’re making our adobo rub and mixing it with the quinoa and crisping it up on the flat top. It’s really nice,” says Tony. “Our goal with the vegan stuff is to make it delicious for everyone. It wasn’t just to have [a vegan] option, it had to be delicious enough.” Another reason why Taco Lina’s has quickly become a crowd-pleasing stop for groups of friends and co-workers. The weekday lunch special already has a following from nearby offices—three tacos for $12. In fact, when I’m back a few days later to taste the food (again), it’s midday and filling up fast with people ordering the lunch combo.
I start with the carne asada fries, and I’ve brought along a hungry friend as back up. The fries are layers of guilty tex-mex pleasures topped with a generous amount of guacamole, needless to say, they are super satisfying. Served in a red-checker-lined plastic fry basket: crispy house-cut fries oozing with queso cheese sauce, drizzled with lime crema, topped with grilled skirt steak (that’s the carne asada), finished with a huge scoop of guacamole and finely sliced green onion. Just looking at it will make you start to breathe heavily. It’s glorious.
I choose five tacos, including the intriguing vegan quinoa al pastor, but I start with the delicious-looking barbacoa. Fall-apart tender, the braised beef cheek offers a texture similar to pulled beef. The meat is tossed in a generous amount of rich, brown, umami sauce made from the reduced braising liquid and topped with cilantro crema, jalapeño, crispy onions, and sliced radish. It’s nicely balanced, with heat coming from chiles in the sauce.
This isn’t my first experience with the Baja fish taco at Taco Lina’s, and it is equally impressive this visit as the previous ones. The batter is light, crisp, and perfect—and the haddock so fresh the delicate flavour naturally comes through, even with everything else going on. There is a thick layer of zingy red cabbage slaw under the flaky pieces of fried fish, which at first looks like too much, but the richness of the spicy mayo fights back, hard, and it ends up perfectly matching the bright acidity. I get this one on a house-made flour tortilla, which is a bit sturdier than corn.
I’ve long wanted to try the fried chicken taco, which is such a fitting Rinaldo brothers creation (decadent comfort food is totally their jam). One perfect bite with everything, and it somehow tastes like fast food, in the best way… maybe it’s the shredded iceberg lettuce and pickles. Two small pieces of fried chicken sit atop an ample schmear of house-made pimiento cheese. This taco is addictive, and I am here for it.
The taco al pastor is made traditionally, with pork that’s been marinated in achiote paste (made from the bright red annatto seed) then layered on a vertical spit. The meat rotates, cooking the outer layer (like a donair), which is then thinly sliced onto a tortilla and topped with fresh pineapple, onion, and cilantro. I’ve had many a taco al pastor in Mexico, and this one hit the mark. The seared quinoa is also super tasty, it absorbs a lot of the adobo sauce, giving it a generous heat, and a rich, complex flavour.
The Rinaldo brothers seem to have this taco thing down, so, what’s next? There’s always something brewing with these two. “A corn tortilla machine is our next big project,” says Tony. They’re currently sourcing one from Mexico and will endeavour to start making all their tortillas in house. This will no doubt take Taco Lina’s to the next level, and, like many of their customers, I’m just plain excited to see, and taste, what’s set to happen. Tony and Sam’s commitment to using local suppliers mean seasonally inspired taco features and fresher ingredients all around. So bring a few friends, grab some Coronas from Gus’ bar, and dive into Taco Lina’s comforting tex-mex.