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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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La Nena and Fruteria Ali do simple and spicy pleasures right
Fire and ice
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Suadero and papas con chorizo tacos.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

A diablito is a fire-engine red, tongue-tingling, eye-popping combination of hot and cold, icy and spicy, sweet, salty and sour. Tangy tamarind syrup, chili hot sauce and salty chamoy (originally a condiment made from pickled fruit) mingle with crushed ice; the whole production is finally speared with a straw coated with a searing tamarind candy that slowly dissolves into the drink.

Marry this to an order of tacos, simply topped with onions and cilantro -- and you might not find a reason ever to try anything else on the menu at La Nena. It's located inside Mercadito Madison, a Mexican grocery on East Washington at Stoughton Road.

The pleasant mercadito sells a modest selection of produce, meat, dried beans and peppers, tortillas and Mexican snacks. But much of the store is given over to La Nena, a counter that offers takeout tacos, tortas, gorditas and huaraches. A second counter called Fruteria Ali is set up to make raspados (snow cones), fruit parfaits, smoothies and juices.

Those with less of a jones for beverages that are spicier than their entrees (the diablito is admittedly an acquired taste) might go for a strawberry horchata, or one of a half-dozen sweet raspado and agua fresca flavors. Salt fiends might try the lemon and chamoy raspado, which isn't sweet at all, and becomes almost puckery with the addition of a handful of freshly squeezed limes.

Simple satisfaction comes from the tacos, freshly prepped on the grill, double-tortilla-ed, and filled with your choice of a dozen-some fillings. The al pastor (marinated pork) is the best-seller, according to the staff, but I'd head straight for the rich suadero (steak, or thinly cut beef brisket, fried) or especially the papas con chorizo (fried potatoes with homemade chorizo, mashed together and griddled). This mix is salty but sublime. Other fillings are shredded beef, shredded chicken, tongue, carnitas (fried pork), tripe, and the potatoes with ham.

Also satisfying are the tortas, made with fresh buns from El Bolillo on Monona Drive. There is a monster, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink version called La Chilanga that stars a breaded chicken breast while also including chorizo, refried beans, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos, avocado and crema. It is a gigundo overload, and even though it's quite tasty, the more straightforward tortas are better. Or get a panbaso, a sandwich in a bun that's been painted in red sauce, with the traditional papas con chorizo filling. The guajillo sauce on the bun is too sparing to lend much flavor, but here too the papas con chorizo is excellent.

Huaraches (based on a thick, shoe-shaped masa pancake) and gorditas (more of a masa pancake sandwich) are a little heavy. Either comes with the option of huevos con chorizo (eggs and chorizo) as a topping, which would be my top pick.

Weekday lunch specials run 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday's deal is three tacos and an agua fresca for $5. Wednesday is a rice bowl, with beans and your choice of meat as the topping, $5.25. And Friday features two pieces of grilled chicken (a leg and a thigh) with a grilled onion, rice and beans, along with four warm corn tortillas and salsa, $7. The chicken may remind you of the better offerings of summertime fundraisers from the likes of small-town volunteer fire departments -- nothing fancy, but just right.

La Nena/Fruiteria Ali opened early last summer and has been refining its menu since. An early version featured Mexican hot dogs and hand-cut fries; these are gone now in favor of more traditional Mexican antojitos.

Business advisers might suggest not putting your new taqueria right next to an established Mexican-American restaurant. So the cynical might point to La Nena's location -- in the same short shopping strip as Pedro's east -- as less than ideal. But the menu and the pleasures here are different. There are no burritos, no margaritas, no fried Snicker bar chimichangas and no seating.

Weekends, more to-go cooked meats, menudo and tamales are offered, though these can sell out early (tamales have been gone before noon on Saturday). In cold weather there might be a big thermos of champurrado, the mild, chunky Mexican hot chocolate, behind the counter. Look for other specials like fresh buñuelos, on the Mercadito Madison Facebook page.

And even if it is not the season for shaved ice, remember Fruteria Ali when it is.

Note that if you plug "3559 E. Washington Ave." into Google maps, there's a glitch -- it shows the wrong spot, a few blocks away on East Wash. Mercadito Madison is next to Pedro's, near the intersection with Stoughton Road.

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