When I went to school in Los Angeles, nearly a third of my meals were eaten at Cactus Taqueria, a tiny orange shack outside my apartment near Vine and Melrose. It had enough exhaust from passing traffic to function as a smokehouse, no shade, no seating, no bathroom, no ambiance and little else amenity-wise. On the surface, it seems like exactly the sort of place that foodies would shun. And yet it’s a major stop on the LA taco circuit. The reason why is that it stripped away the razzle-dazzle and offered diners nothing but the food itself: a fully stocked salsa bar and pastor so good it could end war. Though I love me some fine dining, I’ve spent a great deal of my eating life since leaving LA trying to recapture the Cactus experience.
Here in Colorado, the closest I’ve yet to find is Marco’s Hot Dogs, a blinkand-you-miss-it, easily-mistaken-for-agarage paradise near downtown Longmont. It has ample parking, and an open-air storefront, as much patio-based food cart as it is restaurant. There are several tables, but no chairs, evoking the same lively yet laid back feel of LA or Mexico street food. The downside, of course, is that it’s to some degree at the mercy of the elements. As they say in Colorado, even when it’s sunny, “bring a coat.”
The menu is minimalism at its finest, only offering two things: hot dogs and tacos. There isn’t even a choice of tacos. It’s asada or nada.
The all-beef hot dogs are done in the signature Mexican street food-style: wrapped with a piece of bacon and then flat grilled until lightly crispy to bring both the rich smoky flavor of the bacon, and a slightly crunchy texture that contrasts nicely with the softer feel of the hot dog. They are then dressed up with your choice of pinto beans, onions, tomato, ketchup, mustard, mayo and cheese. Bigger eaters should know that it’s not a full quarter-pound size hot dog, but since that bad boy will only set you back $3.50, feel free to order two without breaking the bank.
Tacos, on the other hand, are $2.50 a la carte or served four to a plate for $7.50 or $8.50, depending on if you want them made with one flat-grilled stoneground corn tortilla or two. One is cheaper, but two is a bit more functional. You can add beans and cheese to the tacos as well, but that’s about all you can do to tweak your order. However, once the grilling is done, and your tacos are in-hand, there is a world of options thanks to Marco’s salsa bar, packed with pico, chopped onions, cilantro, cucumbers, hot sauce, jalapenos and more.
No one would complain about upping the quality of the hot dog, perhaps to Hebrew National, but cooking it in the bacon drippings means few complain either. Neither the beans nor the asada were the most flavorful around (both could have used a hint of pepper), and it was a bit disappointing not to be able to wash the meal down with a Jarritos. But the flavor of the flat grill on the tortillas, and a squirt of lime juice from the salsa bar on the asada easily made up the difference.
If you’re looking to have a meeting or a night out, Marco’s Hot Dogs is definitely not the place. It’s the best kind of no-class. But there is a special frenetic magic to street food that makes lunchtime sing, and between the crispy bacon-wrapped dog, that sweet salsa bar, and its bustling urban feel, Marco’s Hot Dogs wields that magic like a 12th-Level Wizard.