For the second time in just over a year, we have dined at an Ohio-originating Mexican restaurant in the Cultural District. The first was Bakersfield; the second is Condado, which focuses on tacos, chips and dips, although “focus,” as we shall see, is not a word which does justice to the almost overwhelming variety on offer.
Condado’s Pittsburgh location at the corner of 10th and Liberty, which Tonic held down for more than a decade, is its first outside of Columbus. Happily, one of the great pleasures of dining at Tonic — the ground-floor bar and dining room lined with big windows for people-watching — survived the transformation. (For people-watching at even closer range, try to snag one of the outdoor tables on the sidewalk.) Interior changes were largely cosmetic and consisted of an odd mishmash of Instagram-friendly murals: graphic, black-and white geometric stencils; big, graffiti-style skeletons vaguely reminiscent of Day of the Dead imagery; and cartoonish scenes of the surreal. It all communicates “fun place for tacos and margaritas,” and we were down with that.
The tacos were even more bewildering in their variety than the wall decor. There was a set menu of 10 pre-designed options, but the real fun was in creating your own personal taco from the checklists of tortillas, fillings, toppings, cheeses, salsas, sauces and sides. Even loaded, Condado’s tacos were competitively priced. The flip side of the build-your-own concept is that, while no chef would put an item on a menu without tasting it first, here you’re encouraged to be your own chef and hope your mix-and-match creation comes out to your liking, despite not knowing in advance how each ingredient will taste. Will the roasted chicken have any real flavor of its own? How spicy is the chorizo — would it be better paired with cooling lime-cilantro aioli, or with “mucho caliente!” house secret sauce?
While we pondered all this, we started with tortilla chips, traditional guacamole and “dirty” queso. Traditional was one of three guac options — the others (Tuscan and pineapple) were off-putting (to us) — while hot queso dip came plain; spicy; with corn, chorizo or black beans; and “dirty,” i.e. loaded with chicken, black beans, onions and hot (“dirty”) sauce. All these extras were placed in the center of the cheese bowl, so that dippers could scoop up as much or as little as we liked on one of the superb, hearty, housemade chips. The dirty sauce was pleasantly spicy and smoky, bringing plenty of flavor to the finely shredded chicken and mild, creamy queso. We were so glad we’d ordered this.
The guac was less of a stand-out. The avocado was smooth, borderline puréed, and without much indication of chili. However, there were pickled red onions on top and welcome acidic notes within, whether from the pickling liquid or a squeeze of lime, rounding out the flavor.
Condado offers hard corn and soft flour tortillas, plus four custom variations: the Goody-goody (soft flour with guac, sour cream and crumbled chips); the Ju-ju (soft flour, hard corn, queso and chorizo); the Sweet Lucy (soft flour, hard corn, queso and guac;) and the Peezler (soft flour, hard corn, bacon refried beans, guac and sour cream).
We tried the Goody-goody with chorizo, chipotle crema, shredded smoked cheddar and salsa verde. On the traditional taco spectrum, this was excellent, full of piquant flavors and their cool, creamy counterpoints. And the answer to the how-spicy-is-the-chorizo question: quite, and delicious.
Unfortunately, few of the other proteins measured up. Ceviche shrimp, plump and tasty, was an exception. But braised beef brisket was lackluster, while pulled pork was soft and too sweet for our liking. Also sweet were Thai chili tofu, pickled onions and the supposedly spicy jicama-cabbage slaw. Sweetness has a place in tacos, but it needs to be balanced, and, without knowing flavor profiles in advance, it was hard to create that balance.
Still, we tend to grade build-your-own places on a curve. After all, it’s not their fault if we picked chimichurri when the salsa verde would have been better. But the disappointing meats can’t really be excused, and the over-sweetness was off-putting, especially on a menu full of inherently sweet options like pineapple salsa and chipotle-honey sauce. Condado is cheap, fast and fun, with a great tequila selection, but it falls behind the pack as a source of pure taco enjoyment.