R&R Taqueria fills its tacos with flavorful, slow-cooked meats such as lamb and pork. Photograph by Scott Suchman
R&R Taqueria, wedged inside a Shell convenience mart, has no service, no tables, no chairs—just eight stools at a counter and the irresistible aromas of simmering soups, frying onions, and long-cooked meats. The lightness and complexity of the food belie the quick-stop setting.
The chiles rellenos is a delicately battered chili pepper plumped with Oaxacan cheese; a freshly puréed tomato sauce lends sweetness to balance the heat. The mole poblano is sublime, chocolaty richness on a foundation of toasted red peppers. It coats a plate of enchiladas filled with tender shreds of braised lamb. (You can ask for lamb instead of the usual chicken.)
Taquerias can be prone to producing dry meats. But a generous flap of thin, pounded pork—marinated, assertively seasoned, and perfectly cooked—slices beautifully with a plastic knife. On the side come chilaquiles,layered strips of fried tortilla interlaced with a zesty red-pepper sauce. The cooks will prepare them as a main course if you ask.
Part of what makes the chilaquiles so good is the tortillas—the pebbly, variegated surface and deep corn flavor prove they weren’t mass-produced. They’re even better when they’ve been slapped on the griddle to toast, the starting point for all taco assembly here. The carnitas and al pastor are glorious handfuls of chopped, perfectly seasoned meat.
Tacos don’t get any better. Nor does takeout. Nor does Mexican cooking.
R&R may give the appearance of a makeshift business, but it’s the deliberate creation of Rodrigo Albarran-Torres, a commercial cargo pilot who was furloughed two years ago. He’s also an associate pastor at a church in Laurel, and today he refers to his furlough as a “blessing” because it was the impetus to start R&R, an idea he had long toyed with. Having cooked for years alongside his father—a cook at TGI Friday’s, LongHorn, and Outback—he dreamed of combining his organizational training with the flavors and traditions he’d grown up with in Mexico City.
Whereas others might have seen opening a restaurant in a gas station as a compromise, he saw opportunity: “It gave us a chance to be different. You look around and every Mexican restaurant is basically the same. Well, I don’t want to be the same. I want to be different.”
Resisting the entreaties of his landlord (“You gotta do some wings, you gotta do some fried chicken, do a buffet—this is a gas station, remember”), Albarran-Torres stuck to his vision of serving authentic cooking from all the regions of food-rich Mexico.
Because of its odd location and its commitment to authenticity, he considers R&R not merely a quick-stop meal but an experience: “You get to see the food made in front of you. It comes from the cook and then goes to the cashier and then to your hand. It’s direct.”
Taking a page from the bistro trend, Albarran-Torres changes his menu to reflect the seasons—or his whim. That has recently meant cochinita tacos, filled with a spicy hash of diced, roasted baby pig, and sopes, thick, puffy discs of house-made ground corn smeared with good refried beans, salty shreds of a three-cheese blend, and slices of fresh avocado and topped with a choice of meats—the lengua is excellent, the cubes of cow tongue, lightly charred on the griddle, as tender as offal can be.
In recent months, the menu has also included huarache, a chewy corn tortilla piled with beans, cheese, and meats—a dish seldom found outside Mexico City. Coming soon: pambazos from the Veracruz region—airy torpedo rolls dredged through a red chili sauce, slapped on the griddle to toast, and filled with a hash of chorizo, potato, and jalapeños.
A sit-down restaurant is inevitable, though not imminent. (Meanwhile, finishing touches are being put on a second R&R in the food court at White Marsh Mall near Baltimore.) Albarran-Torres says he’d like to showcase the forgotten dishes of the Mayans, and he hopes to offer beer, wine, and margaritas. He’s leery of making the place too fancy or too costly—something fans at R&R, who range from paint-spattered day laborers to professionals who flip their ties over their shoulders before chowing down, no doubt would appreciate.
“When I used to go out to eat in Mexico City,” Albarran-Torres says, “it would usually be outside somewhere—and I’d be sitting on a stool eating a taco or something, and a dog would come up to me begging. Those places are the best places. You go there because you like the food, not because you need the place to be a certain way. We used to always say if there’s a dog there eating, a stray dog, go ahead and eat there—it’s a good place.”
7894 Washington Blvd., Elkridge; 410-799-0001. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (till 6 on Sunday). Tacos $2, other dishes $5.95 to $8.50.
This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.