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Shack sells taco shells by the seashore

Ah, Hollywood Beach, my favorite local beach, I love your everyman vibe, the sounds of musicians at your inexpensive bars, and the crisp ocean breeze as I cruise down your Broadwalk on my bike. But your restaurants? Let's just say I'd like to see more distinctive yet moderately priced places such as Taco Beach Shack.

This modern Mexican spot sitting on the corner of A1A and Arizona Street just north of Hollywood Boulevard is a charming place to relax, knock back a brew and grab some tacos made of high-quality ingredients. You won't find the junk too many nearby places serve: the cheap, bottom-line-padding stuff targeted to tourists who might never be back for seconds.

We sauntered into Taco Beach Shack on a cool Sunday afternoon, perfect for enjoying the restaurant's outdoor setup. All tables sit under canopies and umbrellas with a view toward A1A. As many of us noted, it's a shame it's not right on the beach. But the sand is just a short walk away. The mood is half rugged Keys restaurant, half modern beachside lounge. Toward the entrance, you'll find plastic tables, surfboards and a rough, wood-panel bar with open windows. Further in, you'll find outdoor couches with coffee tables, cabanas with a Ping-Pong table and, at peak times, a musician entertaining the diners.

It's a good thing Taco Beach Shack is a nice place to lounge, because just about everything arrived at a crawl. While the servers are courteous, they kept us thirsty and hungry too often. The wait was partially forgiven following the arrival of a dynamite pile of steak nachos ($7.95), crispy tortilla chips topped with melted cheddar cheese, cilantro cream, black beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream and fresh jalapeno. The cilantro cream adds a nice edge, and the steak is as good as we've ever tried on a pile of nachos.

The tacos are a delight, mainly because we tasted freshness and nuance throughout. The menu is built around several choices: ground beef, grilled chicken, mushrooms, carnitas ($3.75 per taco); steak ($4.75 per taco); and mahi mahi (grilled or breaded and fried), Korean short rib and kimchi, and smoked brisket ($5.50 per taco). Tacos are served on either corn, flour or wheat tortillas (if you're impartial, go for the soft ones), topped with cheese, cabbage, pico de gallo, chopped cilantro and cilantro cream. Regrettably, the restaurant was out of the Korean short rib when we visited, but we found plenty of other meats to love. We'd give the highest marks to the juicy, tender steak, the grilled mahi mahi and the grilled chicken. The ground beef is distinctively seasoned, so it may not be for everyone. The brisket, while flavorful, was less tender than the steak, which means we'll skip it next time.

If you're a do-it-yourself diner, the sort who likes fondue places, you'll enjoy the giant, four-meat "Fiesta Platter" ($29.99). This large plate is perfect for sharing and features a choice of meats served atop tortillas, plus rice, black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo and a roast corn coated in Parmesan cheese. Extra tortillas are brought, so you can build your own bites. And speaking of that corn, if it doesn't come with a meal you order, make sure to try it as a side for $2.95.

While you'll probably come here for tacos, try instead one of Taco Beach Shack's monstrous, delicious burritos ($8.95-$10.95 for a single size, $19.99-$22.99 for the large "familia" size). This delicious, brick-size concoction, which we ordered wet with red sauce and cheese for a dollar extra, was the highlight of the meal.

We were surprised to find delicious salads that weren't piled with loads of fried tortilla. A grilled-chicken salad ($9.95) was pleasantly flavored with a nice mix of organic greens, pico de gallo, romaine lettuce, black beans and guacamole tossed with a honey-cilantro vinaigrette.

The Mexican pizzas seem to be on the menu only because the Shack has all the ingredients in the kitchen, anyway. But the mushroom pizza ($9.50-$12.50 for a 12-incher, $12.50-$16.50 for a 14-incher) offers a crispy thin tortilla crust and chunky tomatoes.

The new desserts aren't advertised on the menu yet, and that's mostly a good thing. The chocolate taco ($3.75), a taco-shaped vanilla cone filled with ice cream and coated in chocolate is an unpleasantly chewy disaster. We fared better with the "cheesecake burrito" ($6.95), an ice-cold cheesecake fried and topped with caramel sauce. Either way, dessert is an area for improvement, especially for a place where people will crave something cold on a hot day.

All told, Taco Beach Shack is well worth a visit for a fresh, modern take on casual Mexican favorites that won't empty your wallet. With more spots like this, I'll be enjoying much more than just sand, beer and cheap pizza on Hollywood Beach.

334 Arizona St., Hollywood


Cuisine: Mexican

Cost: Moderate

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. daily

Reservations: Recommended

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Loud when musicians are playing, average when not

Outside smoking: Yes (all tables are outside)

For kids: Highchairs, kids' meals

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

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