Nacho lovers in the know gravitate to Taco in a Bag in West Dundee's Spring Hill Mall food court -- and not just for the meat-and-cheese-topped chips.
The spot sprang from Food Network's "Food Court Wars" reality TV competition, and owner-operators Tim "Gravy" Brown of Chicago and Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti of Barrington won one year's free rent after beating another contestant team from Highland Park. The partners run all aspects of the business themselves, including menu development.
Taco in a Bag1074 Spring Hill Mall, West Dundee, (224) 293-2017, gourmetnachos.com
Cuisine: Gourmet nachos
All entrees: $6.95
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Beginning their business with a food truck in Chicago, they adapted the concept to an indoor food court for the TV show. Their resulting rental space is a highly visible location between Manchu Wok and Subway.
Taco in a Bag is contemporary and uncluttered, adorned with some whimsical art against a black tile wall. A menu board stands atop an aluminum countertop.
The partners initially began serving their nachos in leakproof silver-colored sturdy bags from their food truck locations, including street festivals, to make the nachos easy to eat while standing or walking around. They decided that idea could work anywhere, such as in a food court with its mix of comfortable booths and tables.
Ingredients are layered with chips on the bottom, sauce in the middle and toppings, not surprisingly, on the top, although mixing occurs. Plastic tableware is provided.
Because just one of the partners or an associate is on duty at a time, there may be a slight wait for service. All food is fresh, including the all-important corn chips, fried in-house.
The menu typically lists a half-dozen choices, including "taco of the month." "There are a million combinations you can do," Brown quipped.
The best seller is The Big Jim, the original taco in a bag. It's named for Jim Reeves, a friend of the owners from the competitive eating circuit, where the partners met. A tasty concoction with thick chorizo gravy, the Big Jim contains small bits of chorizo sausage, a highly seasoned, coarsely ground pork sausage flavored with garlic, chili powder and other spices. Accents are tomatillo sour cream, pepper jack cheese and green onions, with a light kick from chipotle peppers.
Tender pulled pork that has been braised for nine hours in citrus is the star of the Cuban, accented with Swiss cheese, pickles and Dijonnaise mustard-mayo sauce. The mixture was a bit less salty than a typical Cuban sandwich, which also contains ham.
Cheeseburger nachos can be defined as "deconstructed" cheeseburgers. They are not burgers at all but ground beef, flavored with beer and bacon fat. Accompaniments are cheddar cheese sauce, poppy seed and potato chip crumble, banana peppers and "special sauce," a blend designed to evoke the taste of the sauce in a McDonald's Big Mac. Brown said its main ingredients are mayonnaise, tomato paste and vinegar.
Pizza in a bag is another deconstruction, containing no crust. Ingredients are some pizza toppings, including a meaty Bolognese sauce, Parmesan cheese, deep-fried pepperoni and basil. In spite of its pizza-like ingredients, it may not be on the menu for long, Brown said, since many customers, especially the younger ones who frequent the mall, "don't quite get it."
Sudo shrimp taco, humorously named for a friend who won't touch seafood, is the only cold taco in a bag. It's a refreshing mixture of citrus-marinated shrimp, black bean and corn salsa, cilantro and lime.
On a recent visit, the taco of the month was called the Norberto, named for a friendly ex-boss. It featured spicy braised chicken thigh meat, sautéed onion, bell pepper, cilantro and avocado jalapeño sauce.
Other monthly specials can represent all kinds of favorite ethnic foods. An Irish version features house-cured corned beef, coleslaw, whole grain horseradish mustard sauce and Swiss cheese, and there's a deep-fried pastrami interpretation from Jewish deli food, Brown noted.
The doughnut hole parfait dessert in a bag can finish off a meal for one or several eaters. Served piping hot, the doughnut holes are topped with a choice of sauces: dulce de leche, Nutella, peanut butter and jelly or banana pudding. The Nutella hazelnut chocolate spread had just the right amount of sweetness for my palate.