Restaurant News & Reviews

Mas Taco Bar offers a trendy and confusing take on taqueria food

If you walk into Mas Taco Bar expecting a traditional taqueria, you’re going to be disappointed — and possibly a little bit confused. The stylish new R Street hotspot from the prolific brother-restaurateurs Alan, Mason and Curtis Wong is next door to Iron Horse and features fusion tacos, rice bowls and a strong cocktail list, in both senses.

Like that sister establishment, Mas has a high buzz level and feels like it’s a bar first, restaurant second. The vibe is beachy but sleek, and the colorful woven light fixtures, sharp geometric tile and smooth surfaces would feel right at home in Santa Monica or an upscale Baja resort. There’s a big patio and a light-filled, airy screened-in porch, which will be enclosed as the weather worsens.

This is the first Mexican venture from the Wongs, who got their start in the business with a now-closed family Chinese-American place, Luau Garden, and have branched out into ventures including nightclubs, fine dining, sports bars and more.

As restaurateurs, they’ve become adept at giving Sacramento what it seems to want: plenty of crowd-pleasing drinks, easygoing atmosphere with enough style to seem fresh. And they offer food that’s unlikely to break new culinary ground but enjoyable enough, especially alongside booze or with a gang. If an edge of passion seems ever so slightly lacking, well, that’s not what restaurants like Iron Horse, Firestone or Mas Taco are about. Indeed, according to Mason Wong, the taco bar concept for Mas was not his idea, but that of his real estate developer.

Mas hews closely to this formula and is easily replicable. Indeed, replication is already in progress, with a second location set to open at Fair Oaks and Watt in November. The restaurant group just broke ground on a third location in Folsom’s Palladio center.

The original location offers a menu developed by corporate executive chef Christian Palmos, in conjunction with Mason Wong. It’s definitely different from standard taqueria fare, with an emphasis on Asian and fusion flavors. Although a trend for Korean tacos went big several years ago, Mas is going a bit wild with cross-cultural tacos, borrowing from Spain with a roasted cauliflower with romesco, keeping it Mexican with slightly tough pork al pastor and veering to Thailand by way of Taiwan with red curry shrimp taco on a steamed bun.

The lineup — which will be the same at the new locations — riffs on some standards but essentially posits that any food enclosed in a foldy thing is a taco. Accordingly, some of the tacos are served on “laughing buns,” which are puffy, flat-folded versions of the sweet white, yeasted milk dough used in steamed bao.

Leaving aside the feeling that the term “taco” is being stretched to its breaking point, I wasn’t wild about these offerings. The laughing-bun versions include a spicy glazed Korean fried chicken, Thai red curry shrimp and a banh mi shrimp, which had way too much going on both culturally and on the palate. The buns were too puffy to enclose the food well and it fell out messily. Messy food is a bit of a hallmark here.

I also found the fillings of the laughing-bun tacos over the top: too fried, too glazed, too sweet, too much. That said, I can see a couple of them going down easy late at night after several drinks, when presumably the mess would be cause for laughter instead of irritation.

Simpler and easier to eat, the tacos on traditional 4-inch tortillas were mostly more successful. I loved the beer-braised drunken chicken, the spicy chicken chorizo with potatoes and the tender short ribs with guajillo chiles. A similar mixture came in an even better appetizer of tostones tostadas, little masa cups filled with the rich beef.

The roasted cauliflower tacos sounded too precious to me, but tasted savory and lively. I also enjoyed the Baja fish, with not-very-Baja blackened salmon, though it was oversauced. Beer-battered fish, fried to a nice crunch, was also heavy on the sauces but tasted good. The restaurant offers a secret taco that changes monthly. In October, it was overwhelmingly pork-fatty, topped with tough-ish chicharrones.

A duck confit taco tasted mostly sweet and not of duck to me, thanks to a heavy hand with tamarind glaze, and a steak and egg taco was overwhelmed by its egg, too big for the tiny taco. A butternut squash taco seemed like an inventive option for vegetarians, and the squash was nicely cooked, but chard in it was unfortunately dull and bitter.

The steak-and-egg mixture was better on one of the rice bowls, though the steak was still tough and a little bland. Rice bowls, with sauce and brown rice, make for a quick, hearty lunch but are hard to share — odd, since everything at Mas comes out family style.

The family-style service sounds like a nice idea for groups but it makes for some confusion and mess. First of all, there’s a tally sheet, a cute idea borrowed from dim sum service. Diners are supposed to order that way, but on three visits each of my servers handled it differently. One just took my order verbally. One took half the order verbally, then encouraged me to use the tally sheet and then checked the order verbally.

The third server gave me a laminated card to put in a holder when I had checked off all the items on the tally sheet. When I seemed confused by the laminated card and said I hadn’t seen it on previous visits, she rolled her eyes a little and said, “We’re all supposed to be using it!”

Family-style service works better for some things than for others. All the tacos come out on quarter-sheet pans. Did a restaurant-supply store have a fire sale? Suddenly it feels like every restaurant in town serves everything on them. Since the different tacos can be hard to identify visually, and busy servers rush rattling off which is which, it’s hard to know what’s what if you have your heart set on one kind of taco.

If you have a giant group and are getting 10 of every kind of taco — an expensive prospect at $3.75 a pop — you’ll be fine. Our smaller groups felt a little overwhelmed. I had no idea which was short rib and which was duck until I ate a bite. And even then, the duck was so heavily flavored I wasn’t quite sure until I tried the more distinctive beef.

The curved plastic plates are small and wobbly, not up to the job of corralling drippy, messy tacos, much less the various appetizers. The plates felt like a tipoff that this is more of a bar, where diners are expected to have a few nibbles with many drinks rather than a full-course dinner. Dish up just a little of the fresh-but-overdressed salads on that plate and it’s toast, and you don’t get new ones with your tacos. Surprisingly good pozole, spicy and hearty, came out with one spoon and no share bowls, as did a side of equally good black beans, so they didn’t quite fit the sharing plan.

Other appetizers were easier to divvy up, such as two cobs of corn, covered street-food-style with chile, mayo, and crumbled cotija. The Mas fries are a huge bowl covered with that toughish steak, salsa, guacamole, a cilantro dressing, and a bunch more stuff, an over-the-top starter that is drunk food par excellence.

More restrained was the shrimp ceviche, simple but with a good balance of acidity and sweetness. The bright green salsa and a dusky red version made the chips and salsa worth ordering (nope, it’s not free here), as is the pricier fresh guacamole. Be warned: chips are not triangular, but big whole crispy tortillas diners have to break up. I like a thick chip, and I liked them, but it’s unusual.

Those apps go well with the cocktail program, which emphasizes margaritas made with fresh lime juice, a top-notch paloma, and more unusual options such as the refined smoked pineapple, with cinnamon and a mezcal rinse. There are plenty of beers and a short wine list, as well.

Mas is also offering brunch, which has considerable overlap with the regular menu but also distinct dishes such as chilaquiles, a breakfast pupusa and dulce de leche French toast. Sweets are a surprising strength at dinner as well. Mas offers more dessert options than the standard bar, with such selections as don’t-miss churros and a sweet-tart, rich Key lime tart. The latter, more like a layered pudding, came in a Mason jar.

That cute touch is just one of the ways Mas Taco Bar is on trend. The overall effect is slick and well considered, calculated — like most of the restaurants the Wong brothers touch — to succeed. After all, just about everyone likes a taco, even if they’re not quite like abuela used to make.

Mas Taco Bar

1800 R St., Suite D, 916-706-1330

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.

Beverage options: Specialty cocktails, mostly bracing and well balanced, draw on the Mexican tradition (think spins on margaritas and palomas), beer (including some local selections), wine, sodas, horchata and cold brew.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes, several options, including inventive tacos featuring vegetables.

Gluten-free options: Yes, though be alert to which tacos are traditional and which come on a puffy, bready “laughing bun.”

Noise levels: Can get very loud on busy weekend nights — it’s a bar on busy R Street — but lunch isn’t too bad.

Ambiance: The look is bright Baja modern, anchored by the large bar front and center, with sleek concrete accented with bright geometric tiles and eclectic woven light fixtures, plus a generous patio and screened-in seating.

Overall

½

Designed to please thirsty crowds who might also be hungry, Mas Taco Bar is a mixed success. Most diners will like it better if they go in expecting stylish bar first, taqueria second. Drinks are strong and good, the setting appeals, and most of the food is as good as it needs to be — though some will be better after a couple of drinks.

Food

½

Don’t expect traditional tacos; these are fusion style, with Asian-inflected twists, some of which try too hard. Some of the best menu items are the most straightforward, like a chicken chorizo taco or Baja fish taco. The food is designed for sharing, which can be awkward with saucy dishes and small plates. Save room for churros for dessert.

Service

Individual servers are pleasant, if a little overtaxed and thus slow, but the service concept — a tally sheet on which diners mark off their selections — is confusing and was handled differently on each of our three visits. Staff might need more training to get on the same page.

Value

½

At $3.75 a pop, the small tacos may seem costly to those used to standard taqueria pricing; by contrast, generous and rib-sticking bowls atop brown rice are a deal at $8.75. Cocktails average around $10. Happy hour can ease the sticker shock.

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