Date Night Dining: Tacos el Cuñao

Authored By seanphippster

It looks like ordinary salsa, but it was among the best I’ve tasted in Chattanooga. (Photo: Staff)

What is Date Night Dining?
This column is about the experience of food in Chattanooga. I will take people out for dinner and lunch dates at various restaurants in the Chattanooga region. It is not meant to be a review per se, but an account of a one-time experience at a restaurant. Your mileage may vary depending upon your expectations.

This week, I met up with Chattanooga’s resident Yelp ambassador Stephanie Teisl for a meal at one of her favorite authentic Mexican restaurants, Tacos el Cuñao. The restaurant is located at 5813 Lee Highway and has a food truck location in Cleveland. 

Stephanie writes a ton of Chattanooga-area reviews for Yelp, as well as promotes local meet-ups and a weekly newsletter. You can follow Yelp Chattanooga activity via Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve driven by TC on several occasions but for some reason never thought to stop. Big mistake.

The restaurant/atmosphere
After her initial visit to TC in December, Stephanie said, “This could become my new fave Mexican place.” She’s been back three times since and still considers it one of the best authentic places in town. Aside from a few restaurants-Taqueria Jalisco and, to an extent, La Altena-the majority of places in Chattanooga are an Americanized Tex-Mex menu of flour tortillas and shredded cheese. Stephanie, a native of Southern California, has been a connoisseur of Mexican food since childhood. I trust her implicitly.

When you walk into TC, the first thing you notice is the colorful palette. Everything is bright and vibrant, which isn’t uncommon to a Mexican restaurant per se, but everything seems particularly intense here. The restaurant features rows of booths on each side and tables in the middle. It’s not a large establishment, and it is cozy and inviting. The menu is huge. And, thankfully, each dish is accompanied by a photograph, so you won’t think you’re ordering a plate of tacos and get an entire fried fish instead (they have an entire fried fish, by the way). What’s also impressive is the amount of taco fillings. There isn’t an online menu for me to link to, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one. Have I ever led you astray before?

Our server talked us through the menu items-you can get a bowl of menudo or a torta-which included a number of burritos and every meat you’d ever want to stick into a fresh corn tortilla. The food is also relatively inexpensive, considering the quality. Our entire meal was $19.95 before tip.

The drinks/chips
Aguas frescas are a sort of guilty pleasure of mine. When I lived in the Hamilton Place area, I would swing by Taco Roc to get one of their mango waters for the road. I ordered a similar version at TC, and I’ve got to say that this was much better. You could taste the mango pulp and the natural sweetness. Stephanie also ordered a mango agua fresca and described it “like drinking pure mango juice-sweet, but not overpowering or syrupy-sweet.” She also mentioned that it paired well with spicy food.

We also ordered some chips, salsa and queso. I’m a queso nut, and this was a good version-very simple and not a lot of flavor, but it wasn’t overly salty, which was nice. It could’ve been melted a bit more. The salsa was the real star. Stephanie said it was “full of rich and deep flavor, almost like they use a bit of chipotle pepper in it.” Both of us agreed that a good Mexican restaurant starts with the chips and salsa. This passed with flying, bright colors.

The entrées
Tacos are in the name of the establishment, so you’d expect them to be good. And they are. I let Stephanie go the taco route. She ordered a standard plate with three tacos: barbacoa (a grilled beef), al pastor (marinated pork) and chorizo (sausage). Her plate came with chopped onions, cilantro and a side of guacamole. Are these the best tacos in town? Possibly. But we’re not going to make any blanket declarations here. You should try them.

There are several types of burritos on the menu. I went with the manageable yet still enormous burrito mediana. I asked them to stuff it with barbacoa and whatever else they wanted to stick in it. I found the addition of the letters “TC” on top to be endearing. My burrito was flavorful and delicious. I wasn’t too adventurous, so I wish I would’ve ordered something a bit more out of the box. Next time, right?

One of the highlights of our meal was the selection of homemade hot sauces available. You have your standard red and salsa verde options, but we thoroughly enjoyed the avocado sauce. It was a little thicker than the rest but added an intense fresh flavor to whatever you used it with. Stephanie said it was “silky-smooth … with a hint of a green chili heat.”

Would we go back?
It’s a bit of a drive from downtown to get out to that portion of Lee Highway. However, I think it’s worth it to try TC. It’s difficult to find an authentic Mexican restaurant. Our server joked that she’s seen “more and more white people” eating at the restaurant of late. But this is still very much an isolated, secret place for most Chattanoogans. Thanks to Stephanie for inviting me out, and I’ll definitely be back.

The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.

Updated @ 12:28 p.m. on 1/29/15 to correct a typographical error.