With the biggest sporting tournament of the year—UEFA’s Euro 2008—currently in full swing, there’s rarely been a better time to spend an evening surrounded by 11 TVs all tuned to the sport that the rest of the world knows as football. There aren’t many locations in Knoxville that can boast such slavish devotion to the beautiful game, but even diners with no keen financial interest in the competition will find plenty to get excited about at Soccer Taco (6701 Kingston Pike, at Bearden Hill). Here, thanks to a successful balancing act that most sports bars could learn from, the matches and their attendant hubbub—despite the sheer number of screens—are as easy to ignore as to watch, and the food is FIFA quality at soccer-mom prices.
The restaurant’s dark yet merry surroundings are home to head chef Teofilo Cabrera, lured Tennessee-wards by the new management last October from his town of Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala (so good they named it twice). Under his watchful eye, Soccer Taco has confirmed its reputation as one of the best restaurants in its class.
The diverse menu blends accessible, mainstream dishes with the sort of traditional cooking that makes the restaurant a vital part of the emotional fabric of life for Mexican expatriates.
Firmly in the latter category, the cabeza sopes—cow’s head tortilla—is hard work for the uninitiated. The dish requires the entire head (minus only the skull) to be boiled for a day before being chopped into bite-size pieces. These chunks are of varying consistency; much of the meat is very dark but occasionally a quivering, gelatinous chunk of ambiguous pinkness finds its way onto the fork. The wetness of the stew seems to cause some structural problems, rendering the tortilla base soggy and dank. Those to the manner born, however, lap it up.
An equally popular draw to Knoxvillians from south of the border is Soccer Taco’s mole poblano. One of the most respected local examples of the sauce, this strain is prepared with peanut butter, chocolate, and seven types of pepper. To gringo taste buds it offers a confusing, slightly burnt-tasting zigzag of flavors, with the over-riding bucolic tang of turned earth. Liberally dispensed over chicken enchiladas it easily vanquishes the poultry’s subtle charms, reminding us of the classic paradox of a good mole—the success of the sauce depends on its strength and recognizability, yet it is precisely these qualities that make it so difficult for its accompaniment to preserve some dignity.
Less esoteric are the buche (pork stomach) quesadillas. The perfectly cooked pieces of pork, tender inside yet with a crunchy exterior, are thrillingly, buoyantly tasty. While the quesadilla’s cheese is perhaps a little overstated, the overall effect is snappy and wholesome. Lengua (tongue) tacos are equally delightful. The tongue proves soft yet springy, and in its confident, spartan simplicity, the dish has a wonderfully rustic coziness.
Northern tastes are catered to with relaxed confidence and panache. The excellent fajitas are dazzling both in size and freshness, but even these are dwarfed by the kitchen-sink splendor of the parrillada (mixed grill), large enough to satisfy a team of Maradonas. The lunchtime menu, with its selection of cheap, brisk, and nourishing dishes starting at $4.50, offers some of the very best value in town.
Soccer Taco’s only own-goal is, surprisingly, its margarita. On the strength of the menu I was expecting an ingenious and powerful blend of sophisticated sharpness. Instead the cocktail was weak, bland and stingy, wholly devoid of punch and no more exciting than a supermarket mix.
This aside, Soccer Taco has a passion and flair that is evident even in its most unassuming dishes. Cabrera insists that a miserable person cannot cook well, and this ethos, ensuring cheerfulness as ubiquitous as the pails of chips, makes this unpretentious restaurant one of Knoxville’s most enjoyable dining experiences. m