The exterior of Los Tacos by Chef Omar is unassuming: a small storefront wedged into a strip mall in Pembroke Pines.
Inside, the Mexican restaurant is equally low-key, with 10 to 12 tables in a space that can be politely described as cozy. But first impressions can be misleading. It's casual, yes, but what Los Tacos serves is anything but humble fare. Chef Omar Covarrubias cooks with an authentic flair, and he flavors his food with flourish. There is magic inside Los Tacos.
If you know a little about Covarrubias, it's easy to see why. He was born in Mexico City, and grew up working in his parents' hotel restaurant in Cuautla, Morelos, Mexico. Eventually, he served as the executive chef for Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo. After a stint in Southern California, he moved to South Florida in the mid-1990s, and became a frequent guest on Univision's "Despierta America." He traveled extensively, working in kitchens in Italy, France and Switzerland.
In addition to his other eatery, Guacamole by Chef Omar in Lake Worth, Covarrubias is rolling out the Los Tacos franchise throughout the region. Along with the Pembroke Pines restaurant, Los Tacos has locations in Boca Raton and Coral Springs.
"I'm taking my time," Covarrubias says, adding that he's eyeing Miami and Miami Springs for his next locations. "I started four years ago on Pines Boulevard. Five months ago, we opened the one in Coral Springs. That one has a full bar. Two months ago, we opened in Boca."
The thing that ties them all together is attention to detail and strict supervision of the kitchen. To insure authenticity, Covarrubias even flies in ingredients from Mexico, things such as chilies, oregano and the herb epazote.
"It's pricey, but it's worth it," the Southwest Ranches resident says. "Even if it's expensive, I don't care, because that is [part of the] experience."
Our experience started with guacamole and chips ($10.90). The avocado was fresh, and the texture just right: not too mushy, not too firm. The chips, made fresh daily from housemade tortilla chips, were not overly salty, which helped assuage any guilt as we devoured them. We washed it all down with a pitcher of sangria ($18.99).
For a main course, we chose the fish tacos ($12.50), red snapper from Baja California served with chipotle-lime-mayo coleslaw and topped with pico de gallo. Served three at a time, the fish had a crispy, fried batter devoid of grease and was ever-so-slightly sweet, as it was cooked with beer.
The la tampiquena ($17.90), a churrasco steak served with an enchilada, rojas poblanos and a side of rice and beans had a woodsy thing going on due to, again in a guess, whatever it was marinated in. The chicken tinga quesadillas ($9.90), shredded chicken breast in tomato-chipotle sauce, were well seasoned and had just a hint of heat from tiny flecks of peppers.
The vegetarian in our group chose the rajas con crema burrito ($10.90), poblano pepper strips, corn, sour cream and cheese. It was simple, but the individual ingredients held their own against the milky broth. A bowl of these same ingredients was served on the side. Of course, we couldn't discern, and no amount of prodding could get the kitchen to spill secrets, but it seemed everything had been slow-roasted in this simple, hearty dish.
The restaurant was out of fried ice cream ($6.99), for which shredded cinnamon tortilla chips are fried to create a shell around a scoop of ice cream. The Oreo Secret ($9.99), a concoction of breaded cookies topped with chocolate sauce and served with vanilla ice cream, was also unavailable.
So we had to make do with Mexican churros, flan and tres leches cake. Each cost $6.99 and was made with restraint when it comes to sweetness.
Even though Los Tacos looks like a fast-food joint, make no mistake: Chef Covarrubias and his team clearly take their time with their preparations. While getting the Mexican flavors just right is clearly important, it is also evident that Covarrubias' menu has benefited from his European experience. There is a sophistication and worldliness to his food, something the snobs among us wouldn't expect in a Pembroke Pines strip mall.
Los Tacos by Chef Omar
17722 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays.
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Bar: Beer, margaritas, sangria
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes