Taco Burrito

9350 Snowden River Parkway



Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most lunch and dinner entrees $3.09 to $6.09.

Credit Cards: None.

When I heard that Columbia had an East Indian-owned Mexican restaurant popular with lunch crowds, my curiosity got the better of me. I set off for Taco Burrito, quickened by visions of dal chili, curry con queso or tandoori fajitas.

What I found was a bright little restaurant with kitschy toreador and flamenco prints that, like many other fast-food Mexican places not run by Mexicans, uses a standard set of fresh and canned ingredients to assemble generic standbys.

But Taco Burrito does add an unmistakable -- and not always Indian -- touch, to the detriment of some dishes and the benefit of a few others. The results range from downright strange (as in the greasy fajitas marinated in vinegar and Worcestershire sauce) to delicious (as in the chicken chimichanga).

The chicken chimichanga might be the restaurant's only true Indo-Mex hybrid. On a good day, it is the best of the offerings, the deep-fried flour tortilla packed with snowy shredded chicken that is bursting with fresh ginger. On a bad day, the tortilla casing can be a little too greasy and the canned chicken not so well disguised, but the fascinating flavor combination makes it worth a try.

The proprietor must have passed through Britain on his way over, because he knows his chips. In size, they resemble french fries, but their solid, hearty flavor and texture ally them more closely with the British chip. Although they can be on the oily side, these skin-on chips are a far cry from the cottony, rehydrated frozen fries in other fast-food restaurants. The chips come automatically with one of Taco Burrito's other good bets, a quarter-pound hamburger.

Although they would be even better plain, the burgers come with your choice of guacamole, nacho cheese sauce or chili. They are flavorfully grilled, with crunchy exteriors and tender interiors, and are served on good, toasted sesame seed buns.

Beyond the burgers, fries and chimichangas, you will have to pick your way carefully around several strange, acrid sauces. One such sauce seriously detracts from the Mexican pizza, a crispy tortilla shell topped with fresh tomato, onion and two kinds of melted cheese. It would have been a treat with a gentler sauce.

The guacamole, which seems to be made from a frozen mix instead of the "fresh pulp of ripe avocados" touted on the menu, is similarly harsh and vinegary. Fajitas join the club.

Instead of being a comforting foil to the more pungent items, the side dishes add to the flavor pandemonium: Refried beans are spicy and sharp tasting; Spanish rice is dark with chili powder and shiny with oil.

There's plenty of ground beef in the beef enchiladas and burritos, but the burritos come topped with the strange guacamole and plastic-tasting sour cream. Taco fillings offer no compelling reason to endure the rigid shells.

The rest of the menu is hard to take seriously, especially the geometrically correct circles and squares served as the main course in the chicken and fish platter. These work a bit better at lunchtime between halves of a toasted bun.

Other items make great children's food, such as the "beefy chips" -- fries topped with taco beef, nacho cheese sauce and tomatoes. The nacho sauce, which also comes in myriad combinations on top of good, freshly fried tortilla chips, is a dead ringer for undiluted cheddar cheese soup.

Skip the desserts. The "fried" ice cream is not really fried. And cinnamon crunchos are just tortillas in yet another guise.

Taco Burrito needs to sort out its flavorings before attempting life in the franchise lane. But as a good, reasonably priced burger spot, it remains a welcome presence in its location.