Photo | Dan Anderson / Lagniappe

Look elsewhere for authentic Mexican and street tacos, but Taco Mama is pushing the boundaries of Mexican cuisine and margaritas, in a good way.

Taco Mama • 2534-A Old Shell Road • Mobile, AL 36607 • 251-333-MAMA (6262)

Have you ever felt like you didn’t want Mexican food, then you walk into a restaurant and immediately know that you do?” These were the words Rob spoke the second we got a whiff of what was cooking at Taco Mama, the Mountain Brook-based, Southern chain that opened its latest location in the same shopping center as Publix, Simple Greek, Shrimp Basket and soon-to-be Rock-N-Roll Sushi.

He was right. I was neither hot nor cold on the subject until we walked through the door to a more-than-modest lunch crowd and smelled the spices in the air. At that moment I became ravenous for tacos, burritos and all the accoutrements our neighbors to the south once crossed borders to bring us.

My only previous experience with Taco Mama was a brief visit during its soft opening, which featured a self-serve taco bar and a couple of drink options. This was to be my first dine-in menu venture. Having Rob as a backup ensured I could sample enough food to get a good idea of what Taco Mama can put together. It’s a menu that offers a build-your-own concept along with plenty of signature items for the creatively challenged diner.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this fast food, but you order at the counter and take a number. You get your own fountain drinks, but they bring you your beer, wine or margaritas (more on those later). I also wouldn’t call this authentic Mexican. If it is a street taco you crave, keep going. This is more of a place to push the limits of what we think of when we mention Mexican dining.

Speaking of pushing the limits, Rob and I ordered like morons and ate like gentlemen. Don’t get the idea we overindulged as much as this article suggests. No one had to loosen the belt or move the seat back to get in the car. OK, OK, we ate more than we should, but most of this came home with us.

Let’s start with the chips and salsa ($2). Thin, white corn tortilla chips were served with the hot tomatillo salsa, though we also sampled the red, mild ranchera. The green tomatillo had a little bit of fire, nothing you couldn’t handle, but pleasantly hot. Excellent flavor, but still for the masses where heat is concerned. The red salsa was still good. This is more for the kids and our friend Snake, who cannot handle the sting of anything spicy.

Chips and guacamole will run you $8, as will a bowl of queso (a cup fetches $6), but your best route is to get the sampler of all three for $9 and be done with it. The guacamole was chunky and fresh, and the cheese dip was no better or worse than what you usually get at the order-by-number restaurants.

I was building my own taco and accidentally recreated the Ahi Tuna-Si ($6). Maybe I could be a menu consultant! AAA sushi-grade tuna is served completely raw, as it should be. Avocado adorns the fish, and Sriracha slaw fills in the gaps. A side of chipotle ranch lends a little Mexican edge to an otherwise Asian-flavored dish. Get there early for this one — limited amounts are available daily.

I couldn’t judge this place without having the Classic Beef ($8). This is the taco you grew up with. And it’s good.

Rob built a chicken taco that was pretty good, but didn’t amount to a lot when compared to his Chorizo Quesadilla ($8). I realize there isn’t much to say about a quesadilla other than its being good or bad, so I will say this one was good. The sausage was good, the whole thing a little salty, as expected, and easy to handle.

On this cold, wintery day, I wanted something to warm me up. An employee told me they don’t have soup, but her favorite for these temps was The Big Client Burrito ($9). This barbacoa rollup features refried beans, queso, shredded cheddar, tomatoes and the red salsa we had earlier. If you want something to stick to your ribs, this would do the trick.

A side of Mexican Mac & Cheese ($3) is most definitely in Graham’s future. Honey Chipotle Corn and Chorizo Refried Beans are other best-sellers from the sides list.

A handful of drafts and bottles of domestics and imports compete with Mexican sodas, and a simple-yet-effective wine list can get you in the spirit. The margarita menu, however, is anything but simple. From pomegranate to watermelon, cucumber to blood orange, these margs could save your day. There is a fizzy Prosecco version, a low-carb offering called the Skinny and a hot jalapeño version. You can order by the glass or by the pitcher! That’s worth the trip itself.

There is a catering menu with a taco bar, and a Happy Family takeout meal for any off-campus needs. We really are just scratching the surface here. Many items come in baskets that include sides, and once you learn to navigate the menu, finding a great deal is easy. For instance, some of the prices include two tacos.

Like many newcomers, when this place first opened I heard a few negative comments, but I kept telling people to let them get their legs under them. I think Taco Mama is now doing a great job. It’s tacos, burritos and quesadillas — not rocket science — and people are loving it.

By the time we were leaving our early lunch, the place was packed. I expect to see it busier every day. Even if you think you aren’t in the mood, all you have to do is walk in and take a deep breath.