Cartel Taco Bar purveys an eclectic brand of Mexican cuisine. Photo by Velton Hayworth

Cartel Taco Bar

506 E Division, Ste 150, Arlington, 817-200-6364. 11am- 10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-11 pm. Fri-Sat All major credit cards accepted.

My favorite taco date spends most of her days running between high school campuses teaching dual-credit classes. With all her traveling, she’s scoped out the best taco spots in eastern Tarrant and western Dallas counties, so when I asked her about Cartel Taco Bar – which opened a few months ago in Arlington’s Urban Union district, west of the well-hyped Texas Live – she almost pulled a muscle raising an eyebrow. 

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“They’re not very … traditional,” she said.

And that’s true enough. The menu offers a hybrid of Tex-Mex, Texican, and Southern cuisine served in Styrofoam, with the exception of the tacos, which come beautifully presented sitting upright in adorable metal racks. Chips and salsa aren’t served gratis with your meal, which many of our reviewers have previously established as the Maginot Line of Tex-Mex food.

Once we overcame that, there was the issue of the chips: If you prefer thick tortilla chips that can hold salsa, queso, and/or a small toddler, these were fine. But the better, more creative appetizer option was the plate of chicharrones – fried right before service so that the plate sounded like a thousand Rice Krispy treats being consumed at once. The sizzling pork skins almost melted into the piquant, spicy, slightly fruity salsa verde, and the giant pig chips proved a great scoop. The chicharrones also stood up well to the thick easy-melt queso, saved from mediocrity by a hefty dose of chopped onion, peppers, and spices. The red salsa’s earthy, cumin-y flavor wasn’t as good.

The tortilla soup, loaded with black beans, corn, avocados, mirepoix veggies, and chicken – all of which left very little room for the tasty, perfectly salty, fiery broth – was more of a stew than a soup. On a cold day, it was absolutely fantastic.

Tacos are available on your choice of flour or corn tortillas or a lettuce wrap. The flour tortillas were thick and bland. Corn was a slightly better choice, but it was obvious that neither grain-based taco swaddle was housemade. Cartel’s kitchen gets exceptionally creative with the fillings, but be warned: There’s an excessive amount of rice stuffed into almost all the tacos.

The veggie versions were heavy on the grilled zucchini, halved grape tomatoes, a double helping of beans (both refried and a black bean salsa), along with the ubiquitous rice. The mix was held together by a delicate, flavorful tomato aioli, with the requisite sprinkling of Cotija cheese. The dish was good enough to make a carnivore consider a plant-based taco diet.

Sadly, the tomato aioli couldn’t save the smoked salmon taco, which was way overcooked. The delicate flavor of the salmon was lost between the zesty horseradish slaw and the salsa verde. Worse yet was the fried chicken taco: Its pieces were coated in a taco sauce but then accompanied by blue cheese crumbles, a Mexican-influenced cilantro coleslaw, and yummy bourbon-infused bacon. Separately, some of the elements might have been tasty, but the sum of these parts was a confused, discordant mess. 

One of the best things about Cartel Taco Bar is the actual bar, which includes indoor and outdoor seating. My guest and I shared a flight of frozen beverages and sampled the bar’s stellar concoctions (a strawberry margarita rimmed with Tajin salty/sour spice and a frozen Tequila Sunrise that was as tasty as it was pretty), the decent (the house margarita), and the odd (frozen sangria, which tasted like an inexpensive cabernet slushy). 

As we sat finishing the chicharrones, contemplating whether or not we had time for a visit to Legal Draft Brewery across the parking lot, it occurred to me that I’d love for visitors to my fair city to travel into southeast Arlington for some really authentic Mexican food and eschew the glittery Texas Live. Alas, most visitors are not going to seek out those family-owned eateries, so Cartel Taco Bar, with its hybrid of Tex-Mex and Southern cuisine, may be the next best thing.

Cartel Taco Bar

Queso with chips and chicharrones $7.25

Salsa with chicharrones $5

Tortilla soup $3.95

Veggie taco $3.75

Smoked salmon taco $4.95

Fried chicken taco $3.95

Frozen flight $10