The dancing, mustachioed, and fully armed mangos in cowboy boots on the sign outside Los Mangos Express seems designed to elicit both hunger and curiosity in passersby. This promising taquerÃa in Archer Heights just opened last winter. When we arrived the restaurant wasn’t bustling, but it was by no means empty, much like the stretch of Archer Avenue where it’s located. The space is fairly small, with bright orange walls, a few tables and a griddle nearly the width of the restaurant. The walls are saturated with artwork, mainly of the religious or optical illusion variety (e.g. a Mona Lisa comprised of rabbits, kittens, cherubs, and the like). Plastic mango trees fill the corners of the restaurant.
The service alternated between attentive and intermittent, but remained consistently friendly. Helpful may be going too far, since there was an obvious language barrier between us and our server, whose English vocabulary seemed only to include the words on the menu. Our Spanish was even more limited. Most of the menu is predictable taquerÃa fare: tacos, burritos, tortas, and quesadillas, but then something unexpected: antojitos mexicanos, or Mexican street food, and its more uncommon dishes, like huarache con carne and picaditas guerrerenses. The prices seemed pretty low (even the most expensive items are barely over $5), and that was before we saw the portions.
The picaditas–red or green salsa, meat, queso fresco, and a dollop of sour cream–are constructed on a fried masa base, a bit like sopes. These masa cakes are much thinner, however, which gives them a superb texture, exactly halfway between chewy and crunchy. The steak picadita was smoky and full of flavor. The pork one was a bit subtler in its flavor, but had a more appealing balance between the meat, salsa, cheese, and masa. The little roasted squash seeds that come with the picaditas were an excellent side, light and salty; they pop in the mouth with a single crunch.
The huarache is named after a type of Mexican sandal for its shape. Twelve inches long and six inches wide, the huaraches at Los Mangos Express must have been modeled after someone with huge feet. It’s similar to the picadita with its thin fried masa base, salsa, meat, and queso fresco, except it has a couple bonus ingredients. Two thin layers of refried beans (one actually inside the masa and one on top) and a smattering of Oaxacan cheese round out the almost overwhelming dish. The barbacoa taco is an example of the magnificence of a simple standard handled with superior ability. Only one star ingredient is necessary in this dish: the tender and subtly seasoned roasted lamb with its extra-flavorful crusty edges, served on homemade corn tortillas and topped with the traditional onions and cilantro.
Finally, the most anticipated dish of the meal, the chili-spiked nieve de mango, or mango sorbet. They have a chili-spiked pineapple nieve de piÃ±a as well, but it was frankly too icy, too dry, and too salty to be enjoyable. The mango sorbet, however, was simply incredible. Gooey and just a bit piquant, it seemed to consist of more mango than ice. The name of the place says it all, I suppose–Los Mangos knows mangos. The nieve de mango could really be their ticket to city-wide recognition. A couple seated nearby skipped dinner and made straight for the sorbet.
The menu, despite being only two pages, has a myriad of combinations. But if you don’t plan on trying everything, here’s some guidance: the unfamiliarity of the antojitos mexicanos might be alluring, and they’re certainly worth a try, but my advice is to stick mainly with the taquerÃa standards. This is not a place that will be known for its new and exciting dishes, with the outstanding exception of the nieve de mango. Los Mangos Express should be known for its mastery of classic taquerÃa dishes through excellent ingredients and obvious skill, and, of course, its ridiculously low prices.
Los Mangos Express, 4888 S. Archer Ave. (773)247-6070