Rafelitos is a welcome addition to the Anchorage food scene

Jan. 18—It's a lot easier to say goodbye to something when something delightful takes its place. I was despondent when Fire Island Bakery closed their South Anchorage digs in the cool little neighborhood that is home to Anchorage Brewing Co., King Street Brewing Co. and Culmination Motorsports, a business that can only be described as part imported car spa and part accidental museum. It left a baguette-shaped hole in my heart.

Enter, Rafelitos.

This new taqueria which prides itself on authentic Mexican flavors is a fast-casual restaurant elevated by the availability of Mexican beer and a full Kaladi-branded coffee bar. When my daughter and I paid our first visit, a diner was working on his laptop while nursing a beer. In other words, it's a relaxing, welcoming space despite its fast-casual model.

We placed our order at the register and because food is made to order, we had time to explore this thoughtfully reimagined space. The fixtures are sleek and modern and the big floor-to-ceiling windows afford a view of the quiet, quirky neighborhood and of the incredible vintage cars that are being pampered at Culmination. Did I know that the presence of vintage Porsches and VW Vanagons would make my tacos taste better? I did not. You learn something new every day.

But what makes the space truly spectacular is the vibrant artwork that adorns every wall. In addition to La Catrina skeletons that look down — lovingly? menacingly? — on the diners, bold murals, painted by artist and chef Francisco Ramirez Morales, depict various aspects of Mexican culture — lucha libre! — and create a fun, playful vibe. The effect is exciting and creates high expectations for the food.

I ordered the trio of tacos — a paco taco — opting for one carne asada, one al pastor aka "El Jerry," and one chorizo ($16.50). My daughter opted for the pork belly taco, aka "El Valderrama," ($8.50), an elote, delightfully called "Senor Corn" ($6), and we added a plate of rice and beans ($3.50) with a plan to share.

The tacos are terrific. The asada is smoky and garlicky and the Toluca-style chorizo is spicy, salty and satisfying. But my favorite was the the al pastor — Rafelitos' signature taco. The pork is marinated in guajillo and ancho pepper and sweetened with pineapple and orange juices for a perfect balance of savory and sweet. The meat is then layered on a skewer and slow-cooked on a traditional trompo.

My daughter's pork belly taco was another winner. The pork is crisp on the outside and meltingly tender within. And the mellow, earthy flavor of the meat is nicely balanced with the bright herbaceous flavors of the cilantro, onion, and tangy salsa. We also loved the corn, slathered in tangy cheese and chili.

Disappointingly, the rice and beans were a non-starter. The beans were under seasoned and the rice was bland and mushy. We took a bite and abandoned the plate.

We returned a few days later for a quick take-out lunch opting for the Burrito El Keen ($16), a quesataco with carne asada ($9.50), and a horchata ($5). The burrito was hefty and flavorful, a complete meal in a wrap. The quesataco, which I ordered with carne asada, is a traditional taco with a layer of cheese in between the corn tortillas. The first few bites are decadent but after that it felt too rich and heavy. It's not something I would order again. But we loved the horchata which my daughter described as Cinnamon Toast Crunch milk. Sweet, creamy, and refreshing, it served as a beverage and as a dessert.

Rafelitos does have a few rough edges that could use smoothing. In addition to needing to up their rice game, I couldn't find a single bottle of hot sauce anywhere. And any and all condiments have to be ordered as an extra — something I failed to realize and didn't feel like getting up to correct once I did. A small cup of salsa or sour cream on the side of these tacos wouldn't go amiss, especially since all of our dishes were served with tortillas on the side. Sad, naked tortillas. In addition, while the food is served on elegant black plates, the only utensils available were plastic forks. If this were a strictly disposables-only establishment, I could understand but since they have to wash dishes anyway, I would have liked some proper flat wear.

All in all, Rafelitos is a welcome addition to the Anchorage food scene and offers a fresh take on fast-casual options and Mexican flavors. It fits right into its eclectic neighborhood and has gone a long way to heal my baguette-loving heart.

If you go:

Rafelitos

160 West 91st Avenue

(907) 339-1943

https://www.rafelitos.com/

Tuesday — Thursdays: 11 a.m. — 8 p.m.

Friday — Saturday: 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.

$$

*** 1/2