It's in there, I promise. Back behind the stalls selling fitted toe rings and soy candles, cell phone protectors and knockoff sunglasses. Past the bins of matchbox cars and the stacks of used Smashing Pumpkins CDs. Beyond the racks of T-shirts emblazoned with Trump slogans ("There will be hell toupée") and beer jokes. It's there: Maria's Restaurant, inside Bradenton's Red Barn Flea Market.
This small two-window restaurant has more than earned its place among the area's great taco spots, pulling Red Barn regulars and out-of-towners alike into the flea market's small food court for those tacos ($2 apiece or four for $6), plus gorditas (three for $6), sopes ($6), tortas ($6) and burritos ($6), and a range of shruggie-inspiring Americana, items like cheeseburgers ($6) and hot dogs ($2).
Maria's occupies a small corner spot, right near a handful of other food vendors. In one corner of the tiny kitchen, a woman furiously chops cilantro on a white plastic cutting board. Another woman tosses pale cornmeal into a plastic bin to mix up more tortilla dough. Thick corn discs for sopes grow toasty on a small griddle before being placed in the bubbling oil of the deep fryer next door.
Order in one window. Pick up the food from another, where a tray displays a range of condiments: red and green chili sauces; a chunky topping made with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and cilantro; and a thin avocado concoction.
The tacos come dressed simply—just your meat, plus a helping of cilantro bits and diced white onion and a couple lime-quarters on the side—but they're so good they barely need anything. The al pastor pork has been reduced to tiny little strings of meat, bound together with a sticky, bright orange-red sauce. The carnitas also features perfect pork, but it's cooked to a much deeper brown, a dark gray-mahogany, with a distilled pork flavor that's barely been fussed with. The beef of the barbacoa has been chopped into little bits. It's not as juicy as the pork, but it's still luscious. The tortillas that hold everything together are a millimeter or three thicker than you might have encountered at other spots, perfect for catching all the moisture spilling out from the meat and sauce. There's little mess here.
The nopales filling includes small bits of green cactus simmered in a rust-red sauce. It's the spiciest of the lot by far, with a scorch that makes it hard to distinguish much else that might be going on. The meat tacos brighten up with a blast of red chili sauce, but add it to that nopales taco at your peril. Even a large Styrofoam cup filled with Maria's dense and creamy horchata ($1.50-$2.50) can only temporarily extinguish the blaze, but the drink is still delicious. The lemonade (also $1.50-$2.50) tastes a little too Country Time sweet for me.
Belly full, take in your surroundings. Sock hop pop bounces around the exposed rafters above, the music competing with the accordion stylings of Frank Padula, who is performing just around the corner along with a gentle prerecorded backing track. A wispy scent of incense and perfume hangs in the air. A young dad pushes his son back and forth in a small plastic car. A romance novelist a table over complains that her sister has never read any of her books. It's not yet noon, but over at a nearby bar a handful of patrons are sipping yellow beers.
Some of the area's best tacos? They're here. I promise.
Maria's Restaurant is located inside the Red Barn Flea Market, 1707 First St., Bradenton. Hours vary depending on the season; click here for a full listing. Call (941) 747-3794 or (800) 274-3532 to reach the market.