Restaurant review: Food is tasty at Madison's La Taguara, but service confuses

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By Bill Livick/Special to The Gazette
Thursday, March 16, 2017

MADISON—Latin American cuisine is thriving on the local dining scene.

The latest evidence can be seen in the expansion of La Taguara, a Venezuelan restaurant that opened on East Washington Avenue in 2013 and late last year opened a second location on East Johnson Avenue.

The new restaurant replaced The Spot, which was an aptly named little eatery that was a personal favorite as small restaurants go.

La Taguara also serves tasty fare and now operates out of that cozy space. It was packed the night we visited.
But there's a lot more to a restaurant than simply the food the kitchen turns out—a fact that was apparent when a friend and I dined at the restaurant recently.

Like its counterpart, this Taguara is set up something like a fast-food joint. People find a seat, order at a front counter and wait for their food to be served.

It's a simple concept, but it's not obvious. You enter, and immediately in front of you is the counter where diners place orders. But there's no sign indicating how to proceed.

Most restaurants have a sign near the entry that reads, “Please seat yourself” or “Wait to be seated.” Not here. That might not be a problem when business is slow, but on a busy Friday or Saturday night, it can be confusing.

It took my companion and I about five minutes to figure out the best approach. We couldn't ask the man behind the counter because he was swamped taking people's orders. And we couldn't check with one of the servers. There were only two of them, and they were moving rapidly around the restaurant delivering orders.

After an awkward start, we found the only open table in the place and looked around for menus. We found them at the front counter, of course, where we also found silverware and napkins.

Next to the counter, squeezed into the entryway crowded with people, were a large soda machine and a cart full of dirty dishes.

This is the way the evening went. Not enough servers and not enough space for a front-counter operation. Not, at least, in the configuration of this restaurant.

The other disappointment—one that you can easily live with—is the remodeling that took place when La Taguara replaced The Spot. The latter featured carmine red walls decorated with lots of attractive art in a truly beautiful space.

The new Taguara has a “fast-food look,” as my friend put it, and it is absent the artistic touches that once graced the interior.

On the plus side, however, La Taguara's food at the Johnson Street location is nearly identical to its Washington Street restaurant—very tasty. And the overworked staff still is friendly.

In fairness, our server mentioned the restaurant was short-staffed on the night of our visit because someone had failed to come to work.

The menu features lots of meat—steak, pork, chicken, fish, chorizo and shredded beef—as well as a host of deep-fried appetizers. There is also avocado, a number of salads and a distinctive Venezuelan sauce called guasacaca that is made from avocado, cilantro, onion and parsley. It's a sauce for all purposes: mildly spicy but richly aromatic and delicious.

Guasacaca is particularly good with an order of tostones ($7.99)—crispy garlicky green plantains that are sliced thin and deep-fried.

Thick slices of yucca frita ($7.99) made for another tasty appetizer. Crispy outside but surprisingly creamy inside, these fries are similar to French fries but are a bit sweeter and more substantial. The fries are served with guasacaca and a pico de gallo-like salad called picadillo.

One of the staples of Venezuelan cuisine is the arepa—a hot bun made from ground white corn that also has a crispy exterior and soft interior. Arepas are served with several entrees and take the place of bread in Venezuelan sandwiches.

Main courses are large and filling. The parrilla callejera ($12.99) comes as a big platter of well-seasoned meats—chicken, beef and pork—sautéed with onions and peppers and served with chorizo, yucca sticks and picadillo salad (with chopped onion, tomato and cilantro).

The Venezuelan national dish, pabellon a caballo ($13.99), combines spicy black beans and flecks of white cheese with shredded beef, rice, deep-fried plantains and an arepa—all topped with a sunny-side-up egg. The smoky beef is reminiscent of a Mexican barbacoa, and this is another huge plate of food that's sure to leave leftovers.

La Taguara doesn't offer beer on tap, but it does have a good selection of bottled beers from South and Central America.

If you can get past the restaurant's awkward set-up, which is probably less problematic when it's not busy, La Taguara still puts out quality food at affordable prices.

At lunchtime, the restaurant offers specials that include an arepa with a choice of fillings and a choice of soup or salad ($4.99). It's one of the best lunch deals in town, and you might be able to find a table without having to decipher the operation.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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