Bright, colorful, festive-looking Happy Belly Tacos elevates basic Mexican street food with creative, satisfying spins. The neighborhood might be off-putting to some. This could explain — at least on our visit — the number of empty tables at this unassuming restaurant just west of downtown.
Our friendly server was clearly glad for something to keep her busy. So was the cook, who came out from the kitchen to chat since, after preparing our meals, not much else needed his attention. Yet, the food was well-executed and palate pleasing.
The menu at Happy Belly is simple: several taco options, a few burrito choices, some appetizers and nonalcoholic beverages. Who knows, maybe liquor is what’s needed to draw a crowd.
Even without libations, the food should be enough to form lines out the door. First, just about everything we sampled had a kick, though only the pork green chili was a full-body slam of heat. Nonetheless, it was worth every eye-watering bite thanks to the pieces of cubed marinated pork with cilantro, lime and peppers. Our server warned of its intensity and said the current batch, while hot, wasn’t nearly as potent as the previous one.
Based on her advice, rather than a smothered bulgogi burrito ($8.50), we had chili on the side. This not only didn’t overwhelm our taste buds, we all got a sample.
Bulgogi may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of tacos and burritos, but the Korean barbecue pork is a perfect filling for a tortilla. Although this fusion is nothing new, the pork is grilled with a depth of flavor. The sweet and savory tender meat included subtle hints of ginger and brown sugar. Pickled red onions add color along with tart kimchi.
We also liked the bulgogi carnitas and rice burrito. The lightly grilled flour tortilla was a nice touch. We used the green chili on the side for dipping. Besides controlling the heat factor, this also kept the burrito from getting soggy and becoming a knife- and-fork meal rather than a hand-held one.
Both the cook and server said the bulgogi and pork belly tacos ($8.95 for three; $3 for one) were their favorites. The latter bears the name of the establishment. Strips of grilled pork belly topped with lettuce, pickled carrots and jalapeno slices are an impressive combination of elements. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with pork belly. Period. When it’s marinated in mojo sauce (citrus, garlic, cumin and other spices), it’s even better.
The carne asada taco contained diced pieces of grilled steak and chimichurri. This sauce, made with garlic, cilantro, other herbs and vinegar, was, like the al pastor tacos, more traditional than the bulgogi, but equally as flavorful. What set the al pastor (roasted pork shoulder) apart was the pineapple salsa.
I strongly suggest ordering the esquites ($3). Kernels of plump, sweet corn are lightly coated with mayonnaise, then dusted with red chili and topped with queso fresco. In Mexico, elotes, with the corn still on the cob, are a popular street food.
Frijoles borrochos, also known as drunken beans ($3), are a spin on baked beans with brown sugar and beer, as the dominant tastes are good, but overshadowed by the corn.
Happy Belly Tacos has opened a second location on the east side of town. I hope it doesn’t mean the end of the Spruce Street venue. It deserves to be a happening, not just happy, place.
Restaurant: Happy Belly Tacos
Address: 125 N. Spruce St.
Contact: 471-4528; hbtacos.com/happy-belly-west
Restaurant character: Casual ambiance for made-to-order tacos
Rating total: 4.33 of 5 forks
Food: 4.5 of 5 forks
Ambiance: 4 of 5 forks
Service: 4.5 of 5 forks
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Entrees: $3 — $13
Credit cards: Yes
Vegan options: Yes
Outdoor dining: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
What’s online as of Dec. 30:
• No votes on Foursquare
• 5 of 5 stars based on 1 reviews on TripAdvisor
• No votes on Zomato
• 3 of 5 stars based on 40 reviews on Yelp
Excellent rating on Nov. 2, 2018, by El Paso County Public Health.