If there’s ever a case to be made for the existence of a collective unconscious, the sudden proliferation of like-minded restaurants should be studied. While 2017 brought us The Summer of Pizza Pie, fall of 2018 has ushered in a veritable bounty of taco shops. Enter the latest, Semilla, a taco-slinging food truck — and a fixture at the Saturday Farmers Market — that has now put down roots on President Street. Occupying the cozy President Street spot that formerly held Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen, the wall-to-wall lipstick red walls and birdcages are no more. Now, an enviable dark teal wallpaper adorned with gold candy skulls joins Pepto-Bismol pink furniture and trim, along with frosted white chandeliers filled with live plants.
Food-wise the menu is simple, offering a mix of two appetizers, four rice bowls, and five tacos. The guacamole ($10) is what you’d expect, and that’s a good thing. The recipe keeps it simple, with an entire, gloriously fresh avocado mixed with diced tomato, onion, and jalapeno bits. Accompanied by a basket of fresh, salted yellow corn chips, it’s all the green goodness you hoped for, but when did guacamole get to costing 10 bucks?
Meanwhile, all of Semilla’s tacos are $4, except on Tuesdays, because Taco Tuesday, which apparently was created by the Taco John chain, who is notably litigious about the use of the copyrighted term. On that note, tacos are $3 on Tuesdays, because science.
The taco sampling began with barbacoa, the tender, adobo-infused beef chuck roast. Although the corn tortilla seemed a bit past its prime, it’s filled with a generous portion of the spicy shredded beef and topped with the fresh flavors of chopped onions, cilantro, and thin slices of radish.
Consider the Brussels sprout. With the dual potentials to be transformed into something downright craveable, yet also so incredibly terrible, they’re a marvel in their own right. The Brussels sprouts included in Semilla’s taco are the delicious kind, with the oily, deep fried crunch we’ve come to expect from nature’s junk food. A fistful is placed in a corn tortilla and topped with fresh cilantro and three thin slices of apple. Less a nuanced taco than ‘Brussels sprouts in an unexpected vehicle,’ it’s still hard to knock crispy fried Brassica oleracea in any form.
The carnitas stick with tradition, garnishing roasted, shredded pork with chopped white onions, salsa verde, and cilantro. Although a little dry and the meat a tad chilly, it’s nothing a fresh slice of lime — notably missing from the otherwise classic presentation — wouldn’t help.
The pollo taco is filled with chunks of grill-charred chicken, which is then covered with a mild rust-colored salsa, tiny leaves of romaine lettuce, and chopped cilantro, as well as crumbles of queso fresco. There’s a strong carbon flavor to the chicken that I enjoyed, despite (or maybe even because of?) its complete and total flavor domination over the other elements.
The fish taco was by far the favorite. The smallish chunk of tempura-battered fish is freshly fried and served with grated purple cabbage slaw, paper-thin pickled cucumbers, and a white sauce that all signs indicate is the mayo-based Japanese ‘yum yum’ sauce typically served with hibachi. All this results in a crisp, yet drippy handful, and the first bite may compel you to immediately order another one.
The charming pink and green space is filled with live plants, and the service is friendly and attentive. Overhead, the musical selections rotate through a hip, retro melange including Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and The Cure.
Main dishes at Semilla consist entirely of rice bowls, and the carne asada bowl ($13) is comprised of a generous bed of white rice topped with sliced, tender, marinated beef; thin cucumber pickles and purple cabbage slaw; and five green, blistered shishito peppers, plus one much hotter red one. Although pretty to look at, it feels very food truck-y, and there aren’t enough toppings to stand up to the mountain of one-note carbs. Alas, one is sure to encounter many mouthfuls of nothing but rice and cabbage along the way. Considering the whole pepper pods and richly seasoned meat, the same toppings might be better served as nachos or some other finger food.
The pork belly bowl ($11) is also made with white rice, plus two tender slices of pork belly and an unexpected pile of shredded pork carnitas. Also in the bowl is a jicama and pineapple slaw, pickled cukes, and purple cabbage slaw, as well as a chipotle-based salsa. Although the flavors of this bowl were far more congruent and the sweet, juicy chunks of pineapple an unexpected highlight, it doesn’t feel tremendously different from the kind of rice bowl you’d get at a fast casual restaurant, where everything is pre-made and lounging in warming trays. Maybe if the same ingredients were incorporated into a fried rice dish instead?
With a sense that the chef hasn’t yet relaxed into the freedoms of a full kitchen and despite an upbeat and charming indoor dining space, Semilla still feels like a food truck where the cuisine is concerned. However, with a little more time and a few less assembled-to-order menu items, no doubt this little seed can blossom into an enduring part of the Westside neighborhood.