SARATOGA SPRINGS — On the first day of racing season, when I met my pal Sheryl for lunch, we both got on-street parking. That right there tells you the city is not as busy as usual.
We’d used the “grab-the-first-spot-you-see” parking method, so my car was on Broadway and hers near Congress Park, but there were other empty spaces.
We met up at Taquero, which turned out to be a small storefront along Putnam Street. We couldn’t get in, though: The doorway was blocked. I peered into the kitchen.
“No table service,” explained the employee who came to the doorway. That’s when I noticed the laptop, cash register and card reader. Taquero is open for takeout only.
You might want to check out the menu online before you go. It’s well designed — minimalist but attractive, and it tells you Taquero serves tacos, rice bowls, salads and doughnuts. Choose from chicken, beef, pork, mahi-mahi and vegetarian tacos. Or you can put the same filling in a rice bowl or on a salad. It’s an elegantly simple idea.
Bowls come with everything on the taco plus cilantro rice, black beans, queso fresco, pickled red onions, cilantro and Baja crema. Salads are made with Romaine, black beans, toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds), queso fresco, pickled red onion, cilantro, lime and honey chipotle vinaigrette. You’ll spend between $4 and $6 per taco; salads and bowls range from $11.90 for cauliflower to $13.70 for mahi-mahi.
“Do you have a menu?” I asked. The employee pointed to the windows that flank the door. On the left, the front of the menu was taped up at eye level, on the right, the back.
“Nowhere on its website does it say takeout only,” groused Sheryl. But it was a beautiful day and the employee suggested we take our lunch to Congress Park, a few blocks away.
We put in our orders and in a very short time received a brown paper tote bag, our food packed neatly inside. Other customers waited politely for their orders nearby, in masks and standing apart.
We soon arrived at Congress Park, where plenty of wooden picnic tables with “NYRA” stenciled on them were placed, not too close together, in shady and sunny spots. Lots of other people were enjoying the park, eating lunch at the picnic tables, strolling or just sitting in the sun.
I unpacked two entree-sized containers, a bottle of water and a drink. The two small brown paper boxes at the bottom were dessert — doughnuts.
Taquero sells cold drinks, and I highly recommend the cucumber lime agua fresca ($3.25). It is equal parts lime and cucumber flavor, sweet and flavorful. Cucumbers are the things I leave on my plate, but paired with lime, I paid attention.
Sheryl ordered the tinga de pollo bowl ($12.10), shredded chicken in a spicy, smoky sauce made with tomatoes and Chipotle chiles. The taco version is made with chicken, pickled red onion, cilantro, lime, queso fresca and crema verde. Many ingredients were repeated in the bowl version, except for the cilantro rice, black beans and Baja crema. It’s a pretty, healthy-looking meal, garnished with thinly sliced radish and a piece of lime.
“Maybe I’m supposed to mix everything together?” wondered Sheryl. There was green crema verde squirted over a colorful mix of purple onion, black beans, crumbles of white cheese and seasoned chicken atop the rice and beans. It looked appealing, and the cilantro garnish was extremely green and fresh. So she mixed.
“It’s better when it’s mixed together,” she decided. The chicken was dry, not very flavorful, she said. “But I would have put some salt on this and I’m not a big salt person.” She concluded that she would try something different next time.
We were visited by enterprising ducks who walked around my feet, black with white bibs that made them look like they were wearing little tuxedos. They sized us up, dismissed us and moved on.
I had ordered Korean pork salad ($12.35), a mix of Romaine lettuce, kimchi, scallion and Gochujang crema over small chunks of pork and lettuce. Kimchi is essentially salted and fermented vegetables; the American version is usually made with cabbage, as it was here. Gochujang is a staple of Korean cooking, a fiery red paste made from red chili pepper flakes. Taquero tamed it, with something rich, into orange crema.
It was a combination of popular Korean standards; making it into a salad added pickled red onions, toasted pepitas and honey-chipotle vinaigrette. All ingredients looked very fresh. The pork was flavorful and tender enough.
Their kimchi, which I took to be the small, cabbagy leaves, was quite chewy and after a few bites I avoided it. I picked out a few pieces of the pork, which was quite good. My salad was overdressed with so much crema that it was hard to identify the components, and it didn’t take long for the crema to coat and flavor everything. Too bad, because the container of honey-chipotle dressing, which I tried at home, was really excellent. I didn’t even open it at the park; there was no point, and it was sticky with crema.
Also, we got three napkins and I was saving mine (I hogged two) for dessert. So I put the cover back on my salad and opened the two small boxes.
Any unsatisfying thoughts about over- and underdressed salads fell away, because here were pint-sized, pillowy doughnuts, still warm, brown, fragrant, sugary. You get six for $4, all the same kind. Choose from cinnamon sugar, strawberry lavender, blueberry hibiscus, maple bacon and s’mores.
We tried the cinnamon sugar kind first. “Wow,” said Sheryl. “Definitely delicious.” There was crunchy sugar, just enough cinnamon and they were freshly made. They greatly improved our al fresco meal.
The blueberry hibiscus flavored kind had tangy, purple-tinged icing drizzled over sugared doughnuts. We each ate one. “So light,” sighed Sheryl.
We both brought doughnuts home; Frank told Sheryl three times how much he enjoyed the maple-bacon ones; husband Eric liked the leftovers from lunch. Bonus: When the icing hardens at the bottom, take the paper out of the box and peel it off, and eat it like candy.
The tab for lunch came to $40.34, including tip. Our experience at Taquero was mixed — the so-so salad and bowl forgotten once we had some doughnuts.
Parking in Saratoga is rarely easy. Take advantage of the situation, go, park your car and get yourself some doughnuts.
Taquero Tacos and Donuts
WHERE: 68 Putnam St., Saratoga Springs; (518) 886-1217; eattaquero.com
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday.
HOW MUCH: $40.34 with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Order online at eattaquero.com