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FOOD & TRAVEL

Driven loco craving Mexican? Here's your outlet in Kittery.

Ramona Robinson and Luis Valdez, co-owners of Loco Coco's Tacos in Kittery, Maine. Ramona Robinson and Luis Valdez, co-owners of Loco Coco's Tacos in Kittery, Maine. (Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2009

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KITTERY, Maine - It doesn't look promising, this misshapen gravel parking lot, which was once a boatyard. The building is nondescript, a peaked-roof warehouse near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. If you only visited Kittery for the outlet stores, you'd never find it.

When Loco Coco's Tacos opened in 2004, even the locals were skeptical. "Everyone thought we wouldn't survive six months," says Ramona Robinson, who co-owns the joint with partner Luis Valdez.

But New England, as too many of us are well aware, has been longing for authentic Mexican food. From the beginning, when they operated with handwritten tickets out of one cramped unit in the warehouse, Robinson and Valdez have offered a menu of burritos, enchiladas, tacos, and quesadillas made with fresh ingredients and a piquant assortment of homemade condiments: chilaca, avocado, chipotle.

Hefty burritos (in the $7 range) are as big as your arm, if you've been doing your curls. Enchiladas con mole - chicken, beef, or cheese tortillas topped with an exquisite mole sauce (dried chilies, almonds, apricots, chocolate) and served with fresh salsa, sour cream, and dry ricotta cheese - is a personal buffet priced south of 10 bucks. "If I eat some place and I'm not getting my money's worth, I get upset," says Robinson, a tough cookie from nearby Saco, whom everyone calls Mona. "If it's processed food, I'm totally upset. I work hard for my money, and I don't want to throw it away. I wanted our customers to get good value for their money."

Locals, in fact, immediately recognized the value. The staff has grown from a skeleton crew of eight to more than 40. Two years ago, the owners took over the rest of the building, opening a spacious, cafeteria-style dining room with an open kitchen and converting the old space into a cantina, now packed on weekends. A short-lived patio has since been enclosed as a full-service dining room.

"We're not afraid to say, "Let's do this,' " says general manager Laura Melkonian, who brought years of experience in local southern Maine restaurants. Melkonian was a Loco Coco's regular when Valdez met her at Robert's Maine Grill and Market in Kittery, where she was working, and asked her to come aboard.

After overseeing the build-out and systematizing the line, Melkonian now handles the front of the house, scheduling, ordering, greeting customers. Robinson is "the bean counter," and Valdez tinkers with the menu, preparing specials (such as the new spinach and cheese quesadilla, or the beef barbacoa plate) that more often than not become fixtures.

Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Valdez grew up in Southern California. His whole family cooked. He came to Boston to work as a flight attendant out of the Delta hub at Logan Airport, and was struck by the lack of good Mexican food in the area. "He looked for locations for two years," says Robinson.

On a damp day recently, Loco Coco's feels drafty, garage-y. Blown-up photos of Mexican culture line the orange walls, a defiant reminder that Maine is not exactly the first name in fish tacos and lime salads. In winter, Valdez concocts hot soups and chili. But whatever the weather, customers have been streaming through the doors since the place had only one, ordering burritos or huevos rancheros (served all day), staying for coconut pudding and flan. "Literally, we have some people who come every single day," says Melkonian, and semi-regulars who come from as far away as Connecticut.

According to Robinson, the business has gone from $700,000 in its first year to annual sales well over $2 million. She and Valdez now talk about licensing the name and concept. But there's no hurry. "I'll reproduce it," she says, "when I've perfected it here."

Which presumes she hasn't already done so.

Loco Coco's Tacos, 36 Walker St., Kittery, Maine. 207-438-9322. www.locococos.com.