Restaurant review: Style-it-your way Condado Tacos are inexpensive and inconsistent

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Tacos might be the next sliders. Both popular hand-held noshes are versatile vehicles for delivering innumerable fillings. If tacos aren't as prevalent as the ubiquitous mini-burgers yet, they are popping up all over lately. They're the obvious star at customize-it-your-way Short North newcomer Condado Tacos.

A Cleveland import named after the Spanish word for "county," Condado takes over the former Circus Bar space. That's fitting considering that on busy nights, Condado can feel like a circus.

On one packed visit, a rowdy Wolfmother song was the background for what seemed like everyone loudly laughing simultaneously. That hectic atmosphere suits the amusingly irreverent place, where church pews are used for seating and a Day of the Dead theme is featured. The latter is expressed in expansive black-and-white murals, a calavera-headed Our Lady of Guadalupe and two skeletons dressed and perched atop a bicycle.

Eating can be hectic too. Don't expect plates (foil-wrapped tacos are served in cardboard baskets), but do expect to frantically shuffle and mark your orders on multiple "sushi-style" paper menus - potentially resulting in a table crowded with a la carte items.

The large drink menu offers 24 tap beers (a good way to veer) and 45 tequilas. Tequilas can arrive in an arsenal of cocktails inevitably served in Mason jars. Several I tried recalled candy, such as the Sweet Tarts-conjuring house margarita ($6) and Jolly Rancher-esque El Diablo ($7). An exception was the smoky and spicy Mezcaliente ($7).

From the limited starters, I tried El Tres Amigos ($15). Served with fresh chips glistening with grease were small portions of my three selections: guacamole (nondescript), "queso" (tangy and rich) and chunky pineapple salsa (OK). I'd advise getting the best-in-show queso on its own ($6 for a large portion).

Moving onto tacos, unimpressive soft flour and brittle hard corn tortillas are common. Condado shares that with Taco Bell, as well this gimmick: the soft and hard shells can be overlapped. Condado's two-fer wraps have binding garnishes like guacamole, sour cream and queso - and baby-talk menu monikers like Ju-Ju, Goody-Goody and Sweet Lucy.

Unlike Taco Bell, you might have to wait a half hour (as I did) to receive your tacos. But you'll also have more interesting fillings, and they'll be generously applied.

Getting them involves choosing among myriad customizing options. You can also select from a few pre-designed tacos.

Proteins include decent beef brisket, respectable pulled pork, curiously bland housemade chorizo and crispy fried tofu drenched in sweet Thai chili sauce. Multitudinous garnishes are free and include fresh jicama slaw, pickled onions, pickled red cabbage, cheeses, homemade salsas and sauces. On the plus side, at just $3 and $4, Condado's hefty tacos are a good value. On the negative side, they're sometimes delivered chilly.

The best pre-designed taco I tried was the explosively spicy Poncho's Ghost, loaded with pork, vinegary cabbage, onions and Chihuahua cheese sprinkles. My least favorite was the fruity-sweet Herve Villechaize, with diced chicken and too much iceberg lettuce. It came on a soft corn tortilla, which oddly isn't listed on the create-your-own menu.

The focus of this place is the create-your-own menu, which should appeal to picky eaters who love detailing their tacos down to the last drop of hot sauce. Though conceptually silly, I found the combo wraps brought more fun and flavor to the party. I was also partial to the brisket, queso fresco, pickled red cabbage and zingy "Mexican Chimi Churi" sauce.

The dizzying array of possible combinations makes kitchen missteps seem likely - and they certainly occurred when I was dining. Commendably, mistakes were quickly corrected by Condado's friendly waitstaff.

Like it or not, Condado's pick-and-choose approach demonstrates the taco trend's potential for growth. That's something I haven't noticed from the slider fad lately.

Condado Tacos

1227 N. High St., Short North