For me (and probably me alone), the missing “t” in Chapulines Streetacos‘ name is like a toothache that comes and goes. Every time I think I’ve succeeded in ignoring it away, the irritation returns, consuming all of my attention for the next 10 minutes. How do you pronounce it? Stree-tacos? Street-acos? Why did they have to do that?! Aaaaagh!
Perhaps Chapulines (as I will henceforth refer to it forever) intends to spark a trademarked taco franchise revolution. That would be fine with me, even though I usually hate invented names for foods that already have perfectly adequate names. Chapulines’ street tacos are really damn good. I would hazard to say they are the finest gas-station tacos in Maryville (2024 E. Hunt Rd., off Old Knoxville Highway, a half-mile from the ramps for Pellissippi Parkway).
First, a mention must be made of Chapulines’ predecessor at this particular Exxon convenience mart: Taco Loco. A few years ago, it blazed the trail of making excellent tacos in a location not known for authentic cuisine (though it may have originally been a Huddle House, which I suppose qualifies). Taco Loco also featured a mini salsa bar that offered genuine salsas—not at all like the feeble selection at the so very overrated Señor Taco in North Knoxville. (Sorry, fans—although their anthropomorphic taco murals are kitschy fun, the food is absolutely ordinary.) Taco Loco came and went a few times under different owners, until it finally disappeared. Chapulines retraces Taco Loco’s trail and takes the concept even further with a simple, well-rounded menu.
Second, there are no crickets on the chalkboard menu, which may strike a small number of people as odd for a restaurant named after the insect. (Yes, there are indeed Mexican recipes for crickets.) Perhaps they’re off-menu. Regardless, I am perfectly satisfied with the advertised protein selection and do not feel as if I’m missing out on a culinary adventure involving fried antennae.
Third, trying to find a parking space during Chapulines’ weekday lunch rush is an exercise in futility. Blount Countians are fully aware of what they’ve got here.
And now, the tacos that I’ve tried so far:
- The al pastor is worth a drive in itself. Typically, al pastor means a pork taco; and if you want to get historical, it would also mean pork that’s been marinated and spit-roasted, like shawarma. (According to Wikipedia, which I have decided to trust for most matters of information, Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the early 20th century sparked this fusion.) I’ve not seen any spit-roasts at local taquerias, but I have had some delectable al pastor tacos. Chapulines’ is now my favorite; maybe it’s simply because their version is made of chicken, or maybe their marinade/rub kicks more ass. Could be their pineapple—caramelized just so—is fresher. Whatever their secret may be, the flavor synergy is high with this one.
- The BLT shrimp could be accused of having less “authenticity,” but so what? The shrimp is plump and grilled to smoky fulfillment, the bacon adds a crunchy/salty exclamation point to the fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and the soft avocado spear and the creamy chipotle salsa provide a soothing balance, melding the ingredients into a delightful whole.
- The raja poblanas is a vegetarian option that’s a bit mushy (beware the crumbling tortilla) but packs a lot of flavor into a soft mouthful: roasted pablano peppers combined with cream corn and topped with a slice of avocado.
- I can also recommend the carnitas taco, which holds very simple and straightforward braised pork with no adornment, not even the usual dusting of cilantro. I typically prefer more going on inside my taco, but carnitas purists will dig it.
Meanwhile, the arrachera (marinated skirt steak) burrito was just fine, though it did not hold any killer ingredient to send it to the upper echelon of local burritos. Also: At $4, the guacamole and chips is a bargain; they must have a line on really fresh, superior avocados, as the quac was as elemental as quac can get but lacked nothing. And: There is indeed a salsa bar, and despite its minimalism, the three salsas offered are excellent, particularly the “medium” selection with its one-two punch of heat and smokiness.
Worth a return visit?
As you might have discerned from the number of dishes I’ve tried so far, a very strong yes.