Little Rock may be more than 700 miles from the Mexican border, but after savoring an exemplary plate of small, street-style carnitas tacos or spicy, smothered chicken enchiladas, we forget. Those who've traveled down Geyer Springs Road in Southwest Little Rock know that diners have myriad options when considering authentic Mexican cuisine. Weeding out the good from the great can be quite a daunting and laborious task. Among the many available options, we've recently become obsessed with one that has it all — a Latino market, panaderia (bakery), carniceria (butcher shop) and restaurant rolled into a single, nondescript building — Mercado San Jose.
If you visit San Jose for one reason alone, go for the tortas. When stacked up against their more familiar, more frequently ordered cousins (tacos, burritos, or enchiladas), the lowly torta is often overlooked. Diners order their tortas filled with the meat of their choice: asada, carnitas, adobada (spicy, marinated pork), cabeza (beef head), chicken, and lengua are among the available options. On our first visit, we opted for the carne asada torta with all the fixins'. It took merely one bite to realize this was truly something exceptional. A standout torta really comes down to the bread, and in this, San Jose's version is flawless. Some tortas we've eaten in the past arrive slightly too bready, the thick, dense roll often overwhelming its flavorful entrails. Not the case at San Jose. Their bread is baked daily in-house, ensuring that each sandwich is made with fresh, quality ingredients and hasn't been sitting around in a bag for days waiting for the next unfortunate customer. Here the torta rolls are thinner, lighter, but still able to adequately buoy up the wealth of ingredients within. The lightly buttered bread is gently toasted. The fillings are no less extraordinary, the perfect blending of cool and hot, spicy and creamy. Our sandwich was filled with tender sliced beef, tomato slices, freshly shredded lettuce, avocado slices, cilantro, refried beans and melted white cheese. A spread of Mexican crema gets slathered across one side of the sandwich; finish it with house-made red and green salsas, and you are assured to have one of the finest tortas you'll ever bear witness to.
The tacos are no less noteworthy. Diners may order them with a more classic street-style preparation — simply topped with raw chopped onion and cilantro — or opt for the "con todo" approach, which includes the addition of diced tomato, shredded lettuce, Mexican crema, and zesty lime vinaigrette. While we're generally traditionalists in such situations, we found the loaded versions splendid, the flavors complex and varied. Of the meat options we sampled, the cabeza proved to be most satisfying. Composed of the meat (and other nameless tasty bits) of a steamed cow's head, the taco was intensely flavorful, with a deep, rich beefy flavor. The meat tasted as if it had been stewing for hours in the rendered fats and juices native to a cow's melon. Corn tortillas do a short stint on the lightly oiled flattop, imparting a slightly crisp exterior that yields to a soft, chewy interior.
Burritos are another remarkable option. Fresh, manhole-sized flour tortillas are stuffed near-to-bursting with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, rice, sour cream, and a meat of your choice. We chose the pork adobada, spicy reddish-orange strips of marinated pork, juicy and tender, perfectly complemented by its lengthy list of companion ingredients. Devouring one is no small commitment as they are hefty enough to double as the anchor of a small watercraft, but every bite is worth savoring and you'll likely be anxious for another taste soon after it is gone.
Southwest Little Rock is truly a culinary hotbed for ethnic and cultural diversity. San Jose is only one of many restaurants of its kind in this corner of Little Rock, but it may well be the finest of them all.