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Big hunger. Thin wallet. Where to go?

Short answer: Taco Stand.

For 22 years, the most unassuming little cafe in Bend has been wedged into the same obscure location — between downtown and the Old Mill District, a whistle away from the parkway but not directly accessible except through back streets.

The restaurant recently made a big change: It opened for early dinner hours.

But the menu didn’t change a bit. Neither did the simple atmosphere or the order-at-the-counter, deliver-to-your-table service.

No, the only alteration was in the extended hours, stretching its 4 o’clock closing time to 7 p.m.

Taco Stand’s loyal customer base wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘Don’t fix it’

When owners Gene and Lori Fitzsimmons moved to Oregon from New Jersey two decades ago, their goal was operating a small restaurant.

“I came across the Taco Stand,” Gene told me a few years ago. “It was available, and it fit with what I wanted — a small place, kind of casual, but with a high volume. I changed the menu a little, played with the recipes a little bit, but you know what they say: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

Located within a little neighborhood commercial complex six blocks east of Bond Street off Florida Avenue, Taco Stand’s tiny, to be sure. There are six tables (seating 18) and three bar stools indoors, four tables (seating 16) outdoors. As often as not, every available seat is taken, and the line may extend outside the door, past an adjacent gluten-free bakery.

There’s no printed menu. Everything is scrawled on a blackboard, including the special of the day — typically chicken mole on Mondays, carne asada burritos on Tuesdays, fish tacos on Wednesdays, mole verde on Thursdays. It’s been the same for years. Friday may feature a pair of specials, such as veggie tamales and chipotle-chicken burritos. Taco Stand is closed on weekends so that its staff can enjoy the Central Oregon outdoors.

Order at the counter, and you’re given a wooden block to identify your order. The block is hand-carved with a figure — an eagle, a snowboarder or perhaps a fir tree. A community bulletin board takes up most of one wall; as your order is being prepared, you can check “For Sale” and “Roommate Wanted” ads, see what band is playing where this weekend or learn about upcoming benefits. A mural of a siesta under a palm tree occupies the facing wall.

Daily specials

As long as you arrive before they’re sold out, the daily specials are the way to go.

I remember the first time I visited. It was a Wednesday and the taco fish of the day was fresh red snapper. A generous portion filled a soft shell along with rice, lettuce, a tangy pico de gallo and a sprinkling of jack cheese.

On recent visits with my dining companion, we’ve missed the fish. But we have sampled several other dishes. Some of them we liked. Others, not so much.

My beef burrito was especially good. The meat was moist, and coupled with rice and beans — along with the house-made pico — it filled me quite nicely. I even had leftovers.

My companion enjoyed her carnitas taco, with the same fillings as the fish taco (minus the fish, of course). But her tamale was no better than so-so. She found the cornmeal masa, filled with a conservative amount of shredded pork and steamed in a softened corn husk, to be tasty but dry — and she had to make a special request for ranchero-style enchilada sauce to pour over the top.

On a subsequent visit, my chile relleno was a real disappointment. When I finally waded through a lightly fried, half-inch-thick batter, I found a sad Anaheim pepper that could have come straight from an Ortega can. I pushed it aside.

An order of enchiladas — one chicken, one corn, with rice and beans — was adequate at best. Wrapped in corn tortillas and cloaked in a mild ranchero sauce (the tastiest thing on the plate), they were insufficient to satisfy my appetite.

I would return to Taco Stand for the specials, the burritos and perhaps the tacos. Most of all, I would return for a $5 meal, which is hard to find even at food carts.

And I salute the cafe’s success. Twenty-two years is a long time to survive in this highly competitive business.

— Reporter: