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Scene in South Bend: The Redemption of Flamingo’s

| Thursday, January 21, 2016

Scene_banner_webJanice Chung | The Observer

In my quest to find the best taco in South Bend, I was driven downtown to an inviting Mexican restaurant and grocery now known as Flamingo’s. After testing out almost every variation offered by the taqueria, I think I’m ready to retire and settle down.

Formerly called El Paraiso, Flamingo’s offers classic, authentic Mexican cuisine in a simple, no-nonsense diner. It’s also attached to a store where you can get all kinds of groceries — most importantly, freshly baked pan dulce to take home.

El Paraiso was featured by the department back in 2012 in an article titled “El Paraiso Disappoints,” which focused on the taqueria’s legendary dollar tacos. Since my first experience a few weeks ago, I’ve returned to the taqueria twice and “disappointing” has not once described my experience.

As far as the crowd and long wait, Flamingo’s doesn’t seem to disappoint at all anymore, possibly owing that description to a bad Observer review several years ago. Previous reviewer Ankur Chawla had some qualms about paying for a side of light, crispy chips and flavorful salsa, but rest assured it only costs $1 extra, and only on dollar taco days. And who can complain when an entire meal costs $4?

I consider myself a taco connoisseur with experience at countless taquerias on the south side of Chicago. My first time at Flamingo’s, I wanted to try every meat (except the Mexican staple lengua, or boiled beef tongue — I’m not that adventurous) so I ordered chicken, carne asada and al pastor. Each meat was prepared perfectly tender and juicy in hearty portions. Carne asada has been my longtime favorite, but after eating at Flamingo’s, I can officially say that al pastor has surpassed my fondness of carne asada. The menu parenthesizes al pastor as “pork,” but it’s so much more, and nothing like the carnitas type of pork. Al pastor is basically a Mexican gyro, cooked on a spit and shaved off in strips of crunchy exterior, tender interior deliciousness. Since my visit to Flamingo’s, I’ve been ordering al pastor on all my tacos from any restaurant I visit, but the al pastor at Flamingo’s hasn’t been beaten.

I was a little surprised that the staff asked whether I wanted tacos on corn or flour tortillas. Tacos come on corn tortillas. Always. Next they asked what “style” I wanted it in. As you’ll learn at any authentic taqueria, the best tacos come with cilantro and onion. They do have a “Paraiso” style taco served with avocado, sour cream and cheese that sounds just as worth trying, given Flamingo’s track record. The tacos are also served with lime. Use it.

Another integral condiment, hot sauce can make or break a good taco. If bottles of name-brand labeled sauce bottles are being offered with your taco, turn and run. This won’t happen at Flamingo’s, where flavorful, spicy, house-made sauces complement the delicious meats perfectly.

So far, I’ve focused on the tacos, but Flamingo’s also offers a full menu of authentic and reasonably-priced Mexican dishes. Most of the dishes are offered with a variety of meats. This is the place in South Bend to find specialty meats like lengua and barbacoa.

Much nicer than the dive taquerias I’m used to in Chicago, but more authentic than your typical restaurant, the atmosphere is perfect for a casual meal. Tables and chairs are carved with pictures of animals and painted bright vibrant colors, reminiscent of a Mexican resort.

The differing experience that I had compared to my colleague back in 2012 could be due to the change in ownership. I hadn’t been there under the previous owners, so I can’t comment. However, what I will say is that it’s time to give dollar tacos another chance. A Wednesday or Sunday outing to Flamingo’s is sure to become a weekly tradition.

1453418298-e0a5afb4889a521Erin McAuliffe | The Observer
1453418293-490f17474880c2cErin McAuliffe | The Observer
1453418283-943359f44dc87f6Erin McAuliffe | The Observer
Erin McAuliffe | The Observer
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