Sept. 12 2014 05:14 PM

The salsas dance at this North Park joint

Tacos Perla’s totes adorbz salsa set
Photo by Mina Riazi

When it comes to décor, Tacos Perla packs in more DIY charm than a Pinterest board. Log-stump stools share the trim, 750-square-foot space with repurposed baby-food jars, tile-adorned tabletops and a cork photo board bearing—funnily enough—pinned images of smiling patrons. And let's not overlook the color palette, which balances bright candy shades with neutral wood tones. 

In other words, the North Park newcomer's cute factor is on par with puppies and babies dressed as pumpkins, or Daniel Radcliffe, circa 2003.

Unless your main goal is stockpiling photos for Instagram, though, Perla's sumptuous visual details won't be all-important. Opened in late June, the Mexican-influenced restaurant (3000 Upas St.) offers traditional and non-traditional street-style tacos. Handmade corn tortillas, prepared using a spiffy tortilla press, are crisp and chewy with pleasantly uneven edges. You won't find the limp, paper-flat kind here.

Perla's aguas frescas are also made in-house and served from giant, refrigerated vats that empty quickly during peak lunch hours. The pineapple version pairs wonderfully with the heat-packed salsas, which—in true DIY fashion—are spooned out of up-cycled mason jars. 

During the course of my hour-long, five-tacos-deep lunch at Perla, the six salsas swiftly climbed the ranks, becoming the most important players and pushing the tacos into the benchwarmer or, less cruelly, supporting-actor realm.

Not that the tacos aren't delicious. They are. Thanks to its smoked, shredded albacore, the El Futbol tastes charmingly of bacon. An unexpected sprinkling of pumpkin seeds adds light crunch to the cheesy concoction. It's scrumptious and well worth $5.

Though less resplendent, the vegetarian taco is not unremarkable. Meaty Portobello spears are nicely charred, but the difficult-to-eat whole spinach leaves don't do it for me. Still, it's a solid taco, but perhaps a little less deserving of your crumpled Lincoln bill. 

Drizzle the mixed-nut salsa over your veggie taco and—excuse my over-sentimentality, please—suddenly everything will taste brighter. Of course, the piquant sauce is meant to elevate and enhance the flavors of your food. But Perla's mixed-nut version is not the usual, reddish, store-bought stuff most of us mistake for salsa. Peanuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and Brazilian nuts combine with roasted chile de arbol, creating a zingy and buttery blend. Unfortunately, it's not an allergy-friendly condiment, but it will revive the spinach-dense vegetarian taco. 

According to the convenient salsa "cheat sheet" found on every table, the pickled onion is supposed to work wonders for the Ocho taco. And it does. Appropriately named, the Ocho packs in octopus along with chopped poblano pepper and jack cheese. Braised and then grilled, the chewy octopus bits are doused in pesto, which I found strange. Graciously, the pickled onion cuts the richness with its clean, no-nonsense flavor.

Although I appreciate fearless culinary experimentation—the Del Mar, with its ginger-marinated shrimp, is another must-try—my favorite Perla taco is the Adobada. Complex in its own way, the two-bite morsel makes do without melted cheese and pumpkin seeds and pesto sauce. A sunny swipe of pineapple salsa, its sweetness leveled by turmeric and basil, is all the embellishment it needs.

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