BY EMMA SLONINA, Staff Columnist

This is one from the vaults. I visited Taqueria El Rey in Mexicantown in Detroit months ago. I almost can’t recommend it without recommending that you go during the hottest part of the summer, it seems so integral to the experience.

Like most of the places I go to, it was a fluke that we ended up at Taqueria El Rey. My boyfriend lives on Vernor in Mexicantown and would often pine for the tacos stuffed with grilled meats, cooked street-side next to the Taqueria la Tapatia. The smell would drive him crazy as he’d drive past the cook, enticing other passers-by.

One sweltering July day, we finally made the time to go to Taqueria la Tapatia, only to find it closed. The craving for tacos remained, though, so we quickly found somewhere else to go – Taqueria El Rey.

Their kitchen was enclosed, but still open-air (the cleverest marketing ploy out there). We parked up in the gravel parking lot next to it and wandered past the kitchen, reveling in the wafting smells of grilled meat.

As if the smells weren’t enough to convince us that we were in for a treat, being the only gringos in there definitely was. Everything was in Spanish – shouts back and forth between the waiter and the cooks, the patrons’ conversations, the signs, menus, posters…everything. The menus were just English-friendly enough to understand that they sold tacos and chicken, but otherwise left non-Spanish-speakers out of the loop.

We sat looking over the menu for a while, tired and sweaty in the July heat. The restaurant was busy, another good sign, but we were starving by the time we got served.

Charlie ordered two tacos de carnitas (pork), while I got the taco de pollo (chicken), chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage), and tripas (tripe – the small intestine of various farm animals). They billed themselves as having the best grilled chicken tacos around, so I had to give their specialty a try.

We had little time to enjoy our tortilla chips and salsa before our food arrived at the table, steaming hot in two corn tortillas each. Charlie, in keeping with his preference for simplicity, ordered his without the onions and cilantro that I had included with mine. I preferred having a little freshness to break through the spicy, rich meats, but Charlie’s were still delicious.

The taco de tripas was by far the most interesting of the bunch. I had never tried tripe before, but I figured it was as good a time as any to try it in a little roadside taqueria in Detroit. It was crispy, slightly chewy, and grainy, all at once. It’s easy to forget that it’s offal, it’s so tasty. The texture is probably not for everyone, but I didn’t find it so offensive that most people couldn’t at least give it a try.

The chorizo was delicious too. It was dry and crumbly, perfect for adding their special chili sauce. The taco de pollo was wonderful, but having nothing to compare it to elsewhere in Mexicantown, I can’t speak for it being the very best. It was fascinating to watch the cooks throw the entire birds around, though, as they cooked them whole and then moved them on to the next cook to take them all apart.

It’s simple, rustic food served in a carefree atmosphere. It is the ultimate in sensory dining, beyond that of ultra-chic lounge restaurants that try to conjure up “atmosphere” from mood lighting and muffled music. This is full of genuine color, sounds, scents, and flavors. Every second of our experience there was lush, from the uncomfortable drag of sweaty skin on plastic booths to the brightly painted walls and signs, bustling workers, and sighing, contented customers nibbling at leftover bits on their plates. This is truly what eating – and eating out – is all about.

Open for lunch and dinner daily. Call (313) 357-3094 for more information.