Taco fans have good cause to be happy. Mom-and-pop taquerías serving the traditional, double tortilla-wrapped model are increasingly found in small towns across the country, while taco trucks ply big-city streets, remixing the flavors of various world cuisines from their windows.
Madison hasn't missed out. Just off the Capitol Square, La Mestiza and Las Cazuelas serve a more authentic Mexican cuisine than downtown has been used to, while King & Mane opts for variations on traditional dishes. A trio of cheap-eats/fast-service cantinas have also opened downtown over the last year. Of the three - Taco Heaven, the Taco Shop and Los Gemelos - it's Los Gemelos that excels.
The new outpost of the west-side tienda and taquería of the same name specializes in family recipes from Querétaro, Mexico. The owners wanted a second location more accessible to students, and in June opened in the storefront formerly home to D.P. Dough near State and Gilman. Order at the counter or grab a booth - the counter staff double as servers.
Tacos are first and foremost on the menu here, served in the traditional style of twin corn tortillas holding a choice of meat filling, topped with diced onions and cilantro, accompanied by a lime wedge. The steak is sweet and fat-balanced, but the white meat-dominated chicken is rather bland. The pork-based al pastor taco and the chorizo taco, dripping with oil, are rich and well seasoned.
Even more of these fillings are stuffed into the gorditas, served in a thick house-made masa pocket, along with refried beans and queso fresco. Same goes for the quesadillas, which more closely resemble empanadas in their torpedo shape. These handmade tortillas are the best element - crispy on the edges, pillowy in the center. And the two house salsas, served in twin squirt bottles, are essential. The spicy and smoky salsa roja pairs well with the pork fillings; the tangy salsa verde with the chicken.
Tortas are another popular option. These massive sandwiches, half of which suffices for a meal, can be filled with the steak, chicken, chorizo, or pastor and - less conventionally - Milanesa chicken and beef, ham, and even hot dogs. More flavorful is the pambaso, a variation on the torta in which the bread and filling are slathered with a distinctive guajillo chile sauce that's sloppy, but worth the extra napkins. Sopes and tostadas, topped with lettuce, tomato and avocado slices, round out the a la carte section.
While Los Gemelos shines brightest with its handheld menu items, it also serves nearly another dozen platters, with entrees balanced with a combination of steamed corn tortillas, salad, avocado slices, rice and beans. (The refried beans are made with vegetable oil rather than lard, and topped by a generous sprinkling of queso fresco.)
In the bistec encebollado, thin-sliced but broad strips of beef are marinated in a "Los Gemelos family recipe" of spices, and layered with sautéed onions. The well-cooked meat runs to being too tough, and its spicing is on the mild side. The bistec a la Mexicana offers more heat, with the beef accompanied by tomatoes, onions and jalapeños, a trio of colors corresponding to the Mexican flag (which lends the dish its name).
It's once again the pork that takes top honors. The chuletas ahumadas, or smoked pork chops, are served bone-in and are cut not quite rasher thin. Crispy and rich in the way that only cerdo can be, these chuletas are reminiscent of fried ham and completed with some squirts of the salsa roja.
Los Gemelos makes a concession to its campus clientele with chimichangas, fajitas and burritos, not available or rarely ordered at its west-side mothership. Other menu items from the original location are not regularly served downtown, though they may appear on weekends. Recent specials include chiles rellenos, taquitos, posole, barbacoa, carnitas and tamales filled with pork, chicken or cheese.
Vegetarians won't find much here, with beans and/or cheese the primary substitute for a meat filling.
A cooler behind the front counter is stocked with the standard array of cervezas like Tecate and Pacifico, along with non-alcoholic options that include a half-dozen Jarritos flavors, Sidral Mundet (apple soda) and Sangría Señorial (a non-alcoholic sangria). If these sugary sodas aren't enough, a limited dessert menu features flan wedges and cups of mosaic gelatin delivered from a Milwaukee taquería.
But the sweetest treat of all at Los Gemelos remains the humble taco.