What to say about Tex Tubb's Taco Palace? Kids - especially really little ones; the toothless kind - seem to love it. In fact, when we dined at the University Avenue Tubb on a recent Saturday evening - the new west-side outlet that recently joined the original at 2009 Atwood Ave. - we were about the only childless table of adults in the room, conspicuous as the group who'd left their dribble bibs at home. And what we took, at first, to be a children's birthday party was just - according to our waiter - a typical early evening at the Palace.
And why not? That frantically, desperately whimsical name sets the tone for the whole tilt-a-whirl of a funhouse restaurant where just about everything appeals to the underaged. What's not to love, if you're 4? There's the parade of neon colors - a candyland of purple, pink, lime green and yellow walls, and dinette chairs, and booths. There are the cowboy boot clocks, the fairy lights, the shiny hubcaps, the Texas junkyard kitsch, all simulating a big toy chest of a honky-tonk playpen.
And that's fine. Restaurants function in different ways and some (Viennese cafes, Parisian bistros, TexMex barbecue shacks) have less to do with food than setting a scene and offering a hangout. And clearly the near west side needed just this kind of clubhouse, a place where the kids can run free, unless they get conked out by a plumetting hubcap, and the parents can enjoy a good margarita and maybe, if the kids get loud, some sangria, lots of Lone Star beers, and okay, maybe another margarita and then the grande margarita.
And there you have it. Oh yeah. About the food. Whether the parents can enjoy an actual edible meal is another thing (the kids seem to love mashing the soft corn tacos into those insatiable, toothless mouths), and at first we were dubious. The appetizers didn't bode well. There was the King Tubb's nachos, an uncouth pile of five corn tortillas haphazardly smeared with tasteless refried beans and overpowered by a really fat, cucumber-sized pickled jalapeño, which may be designed as a pacifier for the particularly squally kids. And there was a pork and pozole stew, which tasted mostly like tepid water.
And then there were a lot of other really pretty innocuous things too. A wad-like cocoon of a chimi; a plate of undistinguished flautas; a flacid quesadilla (though the smoked duck rendition did contain a lot of tender, if relatively flavorless, duck meat). None of these dishes were bad, and all featured a lot of food for the price. Few, though, were an improvement on any of Madison's many generic Mexican restaurants (or came close to matching the quality of a growing, local constellation of serious Latin restaurants).
But don't give up. Just when we were ready to cede the Tubb to the kids, out came the kitchen's well-deserved claim to fame, and the thing I'd go back for, though maybe if I wasn't in an avuncular mood I'd get it to go. These are the famous fish tacos, and they are good.
Especially good: Chunks of fleshy achiote tilapia wrapped up in a soft corn tortilla and dressed with a crunchy tangle of pickled red onion and slaw that add just the right pop of texture. The blackened tilapia and the grilled mahi are also great, and for the same reason: They feature the creative play of flavors (the generous serving of sweet white fish holding its own against the understated pickled crunch, and a smooth dollop of guacamole) that is both the most honestly playful, and seriously grown-up, thing about Tex Tubb's.
And while the Palace's other tacos don't come close to matching that success (especially the very dry shredded beef taco, and the overbattered fried chicken version, which is a dead ringer for a KFC twister), the chorizo taco is satisfying if you need something meaty, and the smoked pork offers plenty of pig.
Ready for dessert? Don't get too excited. The novelty ice cream bar, at $2.25, turned out to be a Kemps ice cream bar, the kind you'd pick up at Sentry, still wrapped up in its Kemps wrapper. At, not sure if I mentioned this, $2.25. Maybe that novelty act is designed to make you feel like a kid yourself. But it will probably make the cranky feel more like a dupe. It all comes down, in the end, to how much childlike wonder you manage to muster.