A couple of days ago I read a very interesting blog entry by Anthony Bourdain about the so called culinary genre “soul food.” In his Bravo.com commentary on the successful series “Top Chef,” Bourdain explains to clueless readers that “Chefs usually mean -- when talking about "soul" (or "heart") -- that the food has a depth of flavor that is both exciting and somehow, strangely, comfortingly familiar.”
When I sunk my teeth into a crunchy, hot Cuban sandwich from Taco Mix recently, I immediately knew what Bourdain was talking about. In my hands was a perfect example of soulful food: genuinely delicious, vaguely exotic, yet perfect in its simplicity - the best Cuban sandwich I’d ever had, better even than the ones I’d tasted in Miami, the United States’ capital of Cuban food.
Taco Mix, located on the North side of Bonita Beach Road, is a small, almost invisible establishment. It’s a locally owned, family-run hole in the wall that serves great, unpretentious food at such a low price you almost feel like you’re stealing it. In an area overly populated by humongous pricey steakhouses and unexciting chains, Taco Mix stands out for its genuine, fresh food and down to earth atmosphere.
Although I had stopped at their drive-thru window countless times in the past seven years and nursed many hangovers with their delicious breakfast burritos, when a friend and I showed up at the restaurant at 12:30 on a sunny weekday afternoon it was my first time actually venturing inside.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that Taco Mix was lively and crowded even midday, somewhat of a rarity on Bonita Beach Road on a Thursday afternoon. As we waited in line surrounded by Latino construction workers on their lunch break and Yankee tourists with sun burned foreheads, we took a look over the menu offering an array of Mexican plates and an even better selection of Cuban food. The most expensive item on the menu was a platter of rice, black beans and shredded beef for a grand total of $5.99.
Taco Mix is owned and run by two brothers from Havana who work there seven days a week from open to close. Nine years ago the two brothers started one of the many “Taco Ardiente” franchises in the area and dutifully served Mexican fare to a constantly growing number of construction workers, beach goers and hungry teenagers on a budget. In 2006 they decided to buy the building from the Taco Ardiente corporation and, after a brief remodeling and a not-too-original name change, they reopened with a new menu featuring the same sturdy Mexican fare alongside classic dishes from their native country of Cuba.
Although I love the breakfast burritos – three scrambled eggs, cheese and the meat of your choice wrapped in a hot tortilla with spicy salsa ($2.99-$4.50, depending on your choice of meat) – my friend and I decided to order a sampling of Mexicuban snacks: an order of ham croquettes ($4.99), a steak taco ($2), a Cuban sandwich to split ($4.65) and two Modelo Especial beers ($2.75 each).
Our food arrived shortly thereafter, served in plastic baskets, with plenty of extra habañero pepper sauce. I dug into the croquettes first, four large potato and ham patties, breaded and deep-fried to perfect crispiness and served alongside a heap of sliced Swiss cheese, sliced roasted ham and pickles. Although classified as an appetizer, this hearty dish was almost a complete meal on its own. My friend’s steak taco was equally generous, absolutely loaded with sliced meat, tomatoes, minced onions and shredded lettuce.
The real shining star of our meal, however, was the Cuban sandwich. Enough to feed two people, this tasty Havana classic was packed with just the right amount of freshly shredded pork and roasted ham, melted tangy cheese, mustard and plenty of pickled jalapeno peppers. Crunchy fresh bread topped off the pressed sandwich; we both agreed we could eat it every day for lunch for the rest of our lives.
While the food at this hideaway was totally soulful, the truly comforting part of Taco Mix is that a restaurant like this can still survive in the fast food jungle Southwest Florida has become. There’s nothing corporate or manufactured at Taco Mix and you’ll never see their chef on Bravo or the Food Network, but this restaurant is a gem that even Anthony Bourdain would love. If you’re looking for food with heart, history and flavors you won’t forget, forsake the chains and head to Taco Mix.
Want to go? Taco Mix, 4288 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs. 239.495.0991.