The cheerful, colorful dining room at the tiny Taqueria La Picardia in Port Chester. Jananne Abel|Westmore News
The cheerful, colorful dining room at the tiny Taqueria La Picardia in Port Chester.

Jananne Abel|Westmore News
What originally started out as a gourmet burger joint quickly morphed into a restaurant serving Latin and American specialties. A year ago the name changed to Taqueria La Picardia specializing in, as the name implies, tacos. It's a cute spot in the vicinity of the train station to grab some tacos or other Mexican fare if you're on the way to the Capitol Theatre, downtown movie theaters or desire a late night snack. As a matter of fact, it's a great place to get a quick meal whenever the spirit moves you.

Located at 118 Westchester Ave., directly across from the long-closed Port Chester Auto School, Taqueria La Picardia serves up tacos to tantalize your taste buds and soups to warm your insides made with the freshest ingredients. It's not the cheapest place in town to get tacos, but the quality is first class.

Mexican-born owners Pedro Najera, 43, and Azael Vargas, 29, opened D'Licias on Sept. 17, 2011 serving gourmet burgers, many with a Latin flair. I thought they were fantastic, but that was a year before the Capitol Theatre reopened as a rock venue, and the demand for burgers in that neighborhood just wasn't there. Thus the changeover gradually occurred.

"The demand was more Mexican," Najera said.

In English, La Picardia means "cunning" or "dirty trick." "Mexicans we are happy," Najera said, agreeing that Taqueria La Picardia, inspired by the taquerias of Mexico, is meant to be a fun place.

The taqueria has karaoke "any day you want," Najera said. "Just tell me and I put it. You want to sing? I put it."

You can also bring your own wine or beer or purchase Corona or Modelo Especial in addition to agua fresca ($3) in Jamaica (hibiscus tea), orcheta (rice water made with condensed milk, evaporated milk and blended rice) and tamarind flavors. The drinks are not on the menu, so you may have to ask for them.

I'll have to admit that once the burgers disappeared, I was disappointed and didn't go back to this restaurant for some time. But within the past few months, my husband and I were looking for a bite to eat and decided to give Taqueria La Picardia a try. I was immediately struck by the fresh flowers on every table-a single stalk of small white orchids in tiny vases.

"I change them every week," Najera said.

Vargas, who recently moved to Port Chester, is the chef at Taqueria La Picardia although I have seen Najera in the kitchen as well. The partners also own a Tex-Mex eatery in Manhattan called Jasmin Express but are currently focusing on their Port Chester location. Najera, who is usually the front man at the restaurant, came to the U. S. as a teen in 1988 and has lived in Manhattan ever since.

Efficient service is provided by two pleasant young ladies, one from Mount Vernon and one from Port Chester, who speak broken but proficient English.

A satisfying Mexican meal

When my husband and I visited Taqueria La Picardia for the purposes of this review, we ordered the Guacamole Fresco ($9.75) to start which was served on a colorful ceramic plate with a space for the guacamole in the middle and a spray of tortilla chips around it. Chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro are combined with ripe avocado and the mixture nicely seasoned and topped off with fresh lime juice for this flavorful Mexican starter. With a large avocado pit hidden in the mix to maintain freshness, the quantity of the guacamole is such that there are chips left over once it is gone.

The Gringa Taco ($5.50) on a flour tortilla with melted cheese, chicken (there are other choices of meat as well as vegetarian and fish) and a touch of pineapple provided a slightly different, yet delicious combination. So we each could have one, we split the topping between the original tortilla and one of those that came in a pretty wicker basket with a colorful design and a dried flower on top.

Besides the mandatory tacos, we tried the Caldo de Res ($14.95), Mexican style beef soup with chunks of meat, carrots, potato, celery and corn on the cob in a thin, savory broth. Little bowls of cilantro, onions and slices of lime came on the side for optional enhancing. The tasty concoction was served in a pretty floral ceramic bowl, and we ladled the portion into two smaller bowls for sharing. To eat the corn on the cob, the best method is to devour everything else first and then pick it up for easy nibbling.

Everything can be made spicier with either the green jalapeno or red chile de arbol (a potent Mexican chili pepper) sauce in squeeze bottles on each table. The red one is supposedly hotter, but I found that both of them pack quite a punch.

For dessert, the flan ($6.50) was light and eggy, sweetened by the thin caramel syrup that is poured into the custard before baking. This traditional Mexican dessert was served with a cherry on top, capping off a satisfying $49.77 meal.

On other visits to Taqueria La Picardia I have tried the Taco de Chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage chopped) ($4.50); Taco de Pescado ($4.75) made with tilapia, a firm white cod; and a shrimp taco in a tomato-based a la diabla sauce, the latter a special of the day. They all come with two tortillas so you can split the filling and make two tacos. You can also add chopped onion, chopped cilantro and squeeze some lime juice on top to taste. My favorites were the fish and chorizo varieties. Other choices are al pastor (pork loin marinated in hot pepper with orange pineapple sauce), carne asada (thin marinated beef grilled), vegetales (vegetables), pollo (chicken), lengua (beef tongue), carnitas (pork meat simmered in oil) and tripa (tripe or intestine) with veal an occasional special.

A special I can recommend is sopes, fried Mexican corn cakes layered with beans, chopped tomato, lettuce and choice of meat drizzled with sour cream.

During the cold winter months, soup is particularly popular. The soup of the day has recently been lentil, but the therapeutic Sopa de Pollo ($9.50) is always on the menu, similar to the Caldo de Res except filled with hunks of chicken, lots of noodles and minus the corn.

I haven't yet sampled the Taco Arabe ($4.50), made with carnitas on a flour tortilla with Arab sauce (natural yogurt, chipotle and spaces), but it sounds interesting. So do the Esquites ($6.25), a Mexican snack made with toasted corn served with chipotle sauce, sour cream and cotija cheese and the Empanadas de Arroz ($6.50), a dessert made with two arroz con leche empanadas and a scoop of ice cream with chocolate sauce.

Colorful Mexican décor

The cheerful décor at Taqueria La Picardia with mirrors lining each wall, bright red banquettes and blond wood tables and chairs seating 50 is accentuated during the day by the natural light that streams in through the storefront windows filled with healthy-looking plants.

The light orange walls are covered with colorful ceramic and other Mexican wall hangings including a poncho and sombrero. Lanterns hang from the black ceiling which also features a Mexican flag and a green and red fabric tapestry.

An attractive wooden bar with two stools is primarily used as a counter behind which the waitress and Najera, the maître d', often stand.

Besides the ceramic dishes from Mexico, there are various other colorful ceramic pieces sitting here and there.

Latino music fills the eatery using a sound system that displays the song and artist on a TV screen.

The heat is uneven in this small space, so it can be drafty or even very warm.

Taqueria La Picardia is open from 11 am. to 12 midnight Sunday through Thursday and 11 a. m. to 2 a. m. Friday and Saturday. There is metered parking on the street or in the New Broad Street municipal lot which is enforced until 9 p. m. daily except Sunday or free in the commuter lot on Broad Street after 6 p. m. weekdays and on Saturdays and Sundays.

Meals can be ordered and delivered at no charge by calling 937-2003.

The Capitol Theatre has helped business "very, very much," co-owner Najera said. "We are happy because they bring a different kind of people from other towns. It helps a lot." The restaurant is busiest before shows from 7-8 p. m.