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  • From left, a Carnitas, an al pastor, a lengua and a barbacoa taco at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • The doorway to the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • A carnitas taco at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • These cool tarnished metal lamps were among the decor highlights at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • The ordering counter at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • A carne asada burrito at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • Elote at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • The Original Salsa Grille opened in George's International Grocery in 2013.

  • The menu board at The Original Salsa Grille inside George's International Grocery.

  • Monday and Wednesday are the best days to try the tacos at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • Guacamole at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • The carne asada at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery is some of the best around.

  • A chorizo torta at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • Ground beef nachos at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • The Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

  • Chicken tamales at the Original Salsa Grille in George's International Grocery.

Sunday, January 15, 2017 3:34 pm

Mexican grocery houses near-perfect eatery

Ryan DuVall | Restaurant critic

When I heard the taco counter at George’s International Grocery was going to be converted into a Salsa Grille, I had mixed feelings.

There is something great about little nondescript taco joints nestled inside so many Mexican grocery stores. With all of the unique and fresh ingredients right within view, you know you are going to get great tacos as you visit one.

But I should have known Chris and Jerry Rongos would do right by their father’s grocery. Not only is all of the charm and coziness the taco bar always had still in play, the conversion was done beautifully to add even more character to the place. And just so you don’t forget, this is still the same old taco counter, they dubbed this The Original Salsa Grille, even though it was the second Salsa Grille in Fort Wayne.

It’s cantina decor is perfect with stone tile floors, nifty tarnished metal lights hanging from the ceiling and mock adobe roof tiles on the faux street-side canopy. There is a wall dividing the taqueria from the store with swinging doors so it mimics a cantina.

The best thing that used to be served at the old counter was the carne asada. I had to have at least one taco with it every time I visited. And I can report those grilled strips of steak are still some of the best in town.

My carne asada burrito had a generous amount of it, along with my choice of pinto or black beans – I chose both – lettuce, onions, cilantro, chopped tomatoes, seasoned rice, guacamole and sour cream. It was gigantic and its warmed tortilla struggled to contain the fillings.

The only flaw was the beans were not drained well so there was a lot of water that ran out of it, making it messy. The sour cream and guacamole also sort of melted away with all of the moisture, so it became hard to notice.

My chorizo torta had no such issues because it did not have beans. It had a perfect baguette, which, of course, was baked next door at the recently refurbished and renamed, Rongos-owned Broadway Bake Company. In place of guacamole, it had slices of fresh avocado that added creaminess to every bite. The chorizo was stout with a strong dried chile flavor. It, too, is made fresh daily so its taste can vary a bit.

The rice in that burrito was worth ordering as a side. It had a deep orange color, a mild peppery flavor and its texture could not have been more spot on.

The same goes for the jalapeño garlic pinto beans. The garlic was quite forward, which was a nice change of pace, and the peppers gave them just a little kick but not enough to bother a timid palate.

The best side I had was the elote, corn cob on a stick that is a popular Mexican street food. It is best in the summer when corn is fresh here in Indiana, but Salsa Grille’s was great even in the dead of winter.

The corn was very sweet and buttery, it was coated with just the right amount of crema and every inch of it was blanketed in finely shredded queso fresco. That cheese got all over my face and shirt as I plowed my way through the cob, but I felt no shame because it was delicious and worth the mess.

Next to the carne asada, the lengua (beef tongue) was my favorite taco. It was extremely tender and had just a little of that funk one expects from tongue. The al pastor pork had a sweet chile marinade that was quite similar to traditional American barbecue. The barbacoa (slow-cooked beef) was also without a flaw. The carnitas (slow-cooked pork) was a tad bland but a little of Salsa Grille’s grilled pineapple-chipotle salsa nicely covered that and adding it may have made it the most flavorful taco of all.

All of the tacos were double-wrapped and generously filled. Also, Monday and Wednesday are great days to try the tacos as they are only $1.50 each.

Speaking of salsa, the mild was just right, as were the crispy tortilla chips. I loved seeing them serve it out of the 5-gallon buckets that I knew were made up that morning. "We make about three of those buckets every day," an employee told me. I also loved knowing I could go over to the grocery and take a couple of pints of that same salsa and some chips home with me.

There was a better chip-dipping option, however. The Queso Poblano cheese dip was unlike most queso dips. It had a light orange color instead of being pristine white, but still had flecks of pepper throughout.

It was thicker than most queso dips and had a much more pronounced cheese flavor. It was spectacular and I advise drizzling a little of it on your tacos. Heck, drizzle it on everything, it was that good.

So it should come as no surprise that the nachos here were great. The perfectly layered combination of that cheese sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, fresh guacamole and your choice of beans (I liked black better for these) and seasoned meat – the carne molida (ground beef) is a fine choice, but, of course, I would go with steak – it is hard to beat.

Another great mashup of ingredients was the "bowl" I had with ancho chile chicken. Instead of crispy tortilla chips, its base was the tasty Mexican rice. The rest of it was basically the same as the nachos. The chicken breast meat was tender and not at all dry, and it had a vibrant green chile flavor.

The chicken tamales were not as impressive. There was too much chile in these steamed little beauties, so the chicken was overpowered and they were way too hot for a timid palate.

To cool the spice level of that tamale, I had few choices. The horchata was good, but I would have liked to have seen some other flavors of agua fresca offered. Jamaica water is available in the summer months, Chris said, but other than horchata there was only bottled sodas or water to choose from. That is not out of the ordinary for grocery store taco counters, but the other Salsa Grilles have self-serve soda fountains so I think it might be wise to have one at The Original, too.

But I can live with bottled sodas. I am not sure I could live without the cool little taco counter at George’s, and, luckily, I don’t have to worry about that.

Restaurant: The Original Salsa Grille

Address: 2021 Broadway

Phone: 420-5565

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Tacos ($2), burritos ($6.50), nachos ($6.50), bowls ($6.50), tortas ($5), rice ($1.50), beans ($3), queso ($1.79), corn ($1.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: **1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.