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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Overcast
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Mexican on-the-go, plus two more south-of-the-border spots

You may have read about the Los Angeles Korean-fusion taco truck called Kogi BBQ that's the hottest thing in Southern Cal, Tweeting its ever-changing whereabouts to its wired and hungry foodie fans. L.A. has an extensive taco truck culture devoted to more traditional Mexican street food as well. Half the fun is looking at the brightly painted RVs that constitute these mobile restaurants, works of underground art in themselves.

Madison now has its own taco truck. Taquería El Norteño has pulled into the parking lot at Warner Park, and there it's going to stay. It has a startling paint job - in at least one incarnation, it must have been called Rico's, and in another, it was painted to resemble a brick wall - and it does not, apparently, vend in places other than the parking lot at Warner Park. When I first dropped by on an overcast afternoon when the Mallards were not in town, the proprietor was hanging out next to the RV, but he quickly returned to the mobile kitchen, washed his hands, and indicated that the tacos on the menu for the day were chicken and pork. The next day he would have steak tacos and enchiladas as well.

Tacos are just $2 and come with onions and cilantro, a slice of lime and a side container of wickedly hot, fresh green tomatillo salsa. The barbecued chicken taco was good, certainly hot, with a fairly intense red sauce; the barbecued pork taco better. Both the chicken and the pork are in chunks, not stewed and shredded, but still quite tender. The carne asada was salty and rich, but a little fatty. Other filling options listed on the menu (though not available when I've dropped by) are fried pork and crispy pork, and I still haven't made it back when the enchiladas or the tamales are on hand. Burritos are $5. There are no frills, no sides of beans, no desserts. It is, however, one of the best food deals at Warner Park, if you're heading to a Mallards game or after your MSCR softball game.

Taquería El Norteño is usually open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. There's no phone - take that, Natt Spil - and there's no Twitter feed, either.

2229 S. Stoughton Rd., 608-223-9222

Habanero's has borrowed a page from Mexican burrito franchises like Qdoba and Chipotle: Customers line up and the staff stuffs a burrito according to the customer's whim from the building blocks in the steam trays.

But Habanero's is working with some good building blocks, with long, slow-simmered meats at the heart of the experience. The barbacoa (a rich shredded beef) is described as being made with cumin, cloves, garlic and oregano. The carnitas (shredded pork) is described as "seasoned with apple juice, bay leaves, fresh black pepper and then cooked for six hours." I'm not going to argue with the results, which are better than most barbecue and a step up from some dedicated Mexican restaurants. Also available: steak (seasoned with homemade adobo), chicken (ditto) and pastor (pork marinated in the adobo, then grilled). The veggie version comes with homemade guacamole.

As at the chains, the flour tortilla is laid out and christened with a generous scoop of cilantro-flecked white rice. Your choice of black or pinto beans comes next; then salsa (choose from a juicy pico de gallo, a medium green tomatillo sauce, a corn relish or a red habanero sauce), cheese, sour cream, guacamole (an extra $1.25 charge) and lettuce.

La Mexicana
834 Water St., Sauk City, 608-643-7007

La Mexicana, a grocery and small restaurant combo, is just around the corner from where Highway 12 crosses the Wisconsin River. It has a small menu, but it's good. The chips are not complimentary, but worth a side order just for the fresh, homemade, cilantro-inflected pico de gallo that comes with the dark, thick tortillas.

Here the burritos carry their weight well. The juicy and tender shredded beef is a good pick; carne asada, al pastor, ground beef, chicken, chorizo and tongue are also on the menu. I usually end up with either the chicken enchiladas or the chile relleno, served with rice and beans, both of which used to be specials but have made their way onto the permanent menu. The enchiladas feature a deep, rich, almost smoky red sauce, and are so soft and crumbly that the corn tortillas seem to have merged on a molecular level with the chicken. Top it with smooth crema and some of that pico de gallo. The chiles rellenos (stuffed poblano peppers) have too much cheese per pepper and on one visit were incredibly too salty, but I haven't sworn off them yet.

Up to 10 Mexican beers ($2.50/bottle) are on hand. There are a handful of Formica booths for seating, and the inevitable flat-screen TV, playing Mexican sitcoms and game shows, for entertainment.

You were ready to head up to Devil's Lake anyway. Call ahead for takeout and make it a picnic.

These are excerpts from full reviews on

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