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Tex-Mex classics, fast and flavorful

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Is there any finer fast food than a well-constructed taco or, better yet, its bulked-up big brother, the burrito? At their best, they’re wholesome and filling, nutritious and versatile, a square meal rolled up in a package that’s both portable and tasty.

They’re also highly affordable and unbeatably quick to serve and eat. That’s certainly the way you find them at Frijoles, a stylish little specialist taqueria that opened at the beginning of this year on a quiet side street in the heart of Azabu-Juban.

Frijoles isn’t the first place in the city to serve these Mexican-born, U.S.-bred staple snacks — not by several decades. Where it breaks refreshing new ground, though, is that it doesn’t dress them with the usual stereotypical Tex-Mex trappings. You won’t find exotic tourist posters, Zapata sombreros or quaint Day of the Dead knickknacks. You’re there to eat, not pretend you’re in Tijuana.

Instead, the look is contemporary urban, with stripped-back glass and steel, a fascia of raw concrete and walls of gunmetal gray. It’s all about the food, as you realize on reaching the service counter just inside the door.

Anyone who’s spent any time in North America is likely to feel immediately at home. In both inspiration and execution, Frijoles models itself liberally on the U.S. “gourmet taco” chain Chipotle. That’s not a bad thing by any means, as it translates into quality ingredients and service.

However, there’s a whole generation of Japanese who are more familiar with taco-rice — an Okinawa-spawned fusion of spicy ground meat over plain white rice, with salad greens on the side — than with the idea of eating tortillas. For that reason, the whole ordering process at Frijoles is carefully spelled out on the bilingual menu.

There are three levels of decision-making. First, do you want burritos (fat; rolled up with plenty of ingredients inside)? Or tacos (smaller and open)? Both are made with soft flour tortillas, not cornmeal. Next, you choose what goes inside: chicken, beef, pork, or a strictly vegetarian version (built around black beans and guacamole). And finally, you pick your seasonings from a variety of salsas and condiments. The first time we dropped in we found it took longer to decide our order than it did for the kitchen crew to make it.

We haven’t quite worked our way through the entire menu yet, but we have already identified a few solid favorites. All the meat is good, thanks to the savory adobo sauce it’s marinated in before it’s cooked. But the carnitas (braised pork) is the clear winner — and not just with us either. Because it’s cooked up in small batches, this is the item that’s most likely to be sold out.

Compared to what you’d expect Stateside, the flavors and spices are muted considerably. We were less than thrilled with the anemic fresh tomato salsa, though hopefully it will taste better when the tomatoes are riper in the coming summer. But at least the fiery red arbol chili salsa delivers a proper piquant punch to the taste buds.

The guacamole has the right texture, mashed not too smooth, but it’s underflavored too. You don’t notice so much when it’s stuffed into your burrito, but when served alone with an order of the excellent fresh-fried chips, it calls out for extra salt, a dash of lime, or a liberal splash of Tabasco or Marie Sharp’s habanero sauce.

Frijoles may be a fast-food joint but there are several incentives for lingering a while, especially if you manage to seat yourself at one of the sunny tables by the open doors facing onto the street. There are free refills of coffee or tea, root beer for those craving a taste of home, and a good choice of beers — Negra Modelo and Koedo, a local microbrew, as well as the inevitable Corona. And even if the margaritas are served in plastic cups, they still manage to hit the spot.

Overall, we give Frijoles a thumbs up. We like that the food is so fresh and that the trilingual kitchen staff (several of them Mexican or Spanish) are so prompt and attentive. More than that, we like the style. According to its Web site, Frijoles is planning on becoming a franchise. We’re looking forward to seeing more branches around town.