Venue Review: The Mason Jar
West-side eatery has tasty dishes but can’t compete with cheaper options
Before there was the Taco Triangle, there was La Unica. Today, nearly all the truly authentic cooking by Latino immigrants for Latino immigrants takes place in a triangle of the city formed roughly by Galley Road, and Academy and Union boulevards.
But when La Unica, a bright little Sonoran restaurant, opened in a former Taco Bell on West Colorado Avenue in 2000, Colorado Springs had less than half the Hispanic population it does now, and the city’s taco choices ranged from Tex Mex to, well, that was pretty much it.
Then La Unica opened the city’s eyes to the true Mexican street taco — a palm-size fold of two soft masa corn tortillas holding a few bites of finely chopped carne asada beef crisped on a grill and mixed with onions and cilantro. It wasn’t the first true taco place in town (that title probably goes to the original branch of La Unica, a somewhat humble taqueria still open on East Platte Avenue), but after falling in love with this style of tacos on a trip through Baja, La Unica is the first place I found them.
Eight years later, La Unica still offers a lot to love. While newer Taco Triangle restaurants outshine this old star in many ways, it’s still the go-to place for real Mexican on the west side.
Inside, the once sterile Taco Bell walls are bedecked with parrot sculptures and lush plants. The dining room offers a few festively painted tables and spills out to a covered patio that’s full in the summer.
A good place to start is the ceviche ($6.95) served in a saucer-size clam shell. The cool, tender bits of fish and shrimp swim in a bright lime marinade with cucumbers and peppers that offers a fresh finish.
Chile relleno fans should schedule a meal on the weekend when La Unica serves fat, meaty poblano peppers (the best pepper for this dish) oozing with a light, flavorful blend of cheeses in a batter that’s crisp, not too eggy, and comes on a combination plate with a choice of enchilada.
The chile verde burrito ($10.95) is packed with thick chunks of pork and slices of green chile in a well-seasoned sauce. It’s not a Colorado-style green chile, but that’s always been the point here.
The menu warns that the chipotle-style pork plate ($13.95) is “very hot.”
One bite of this dish of cubed, slow-cooked pork in a sauce of jalapeño peppers that have been smoked, dried, ground to a powder, then mixed with cloves and other spices, makes every pore on your brow instantly open in shock.
“It builds on you,” a friend said with beads of sweat glistening on his face. But it was so good he cleaned his plate.
I get the feeling west-side regulars at La Unica find what they like and stick to it, because the menu lurks with disappointments.
A chicken enchilada with the relleno was bland despite being covered in sauce.
The fish tacos, ($3.50) made with breaded codfish, were crisp but had a “fish sticky” taste.
The tacos ($2.50 each) are similar to authentic taqueria snacks available in the Triangle, but less deserving and more expensive. The asada (chopped steak), barbacoa (marinated shredded beef) and carnitas (marinated pork) were good enough and not greasy, but lacked the authentic toppings that can make a great taqueria.
The below average dishes are made worse by above-average pricing across the menu. A fajita combo is $16 — more than you’d pay at the decidedly more upscale Salsa Brava in Briargate. You don’t get refills on chips or sodas.
Maybe La Unica could get away with this pricing when it was one of the few true Mexican spots. But supply, demand and a dining room that has been almost empty every time I visit suggest not anymore.