I lump specialty and traditional tacos in my Best Of lists because the pesky issue of taco authenticity is something I overcame long ago. The breakfast taco (a Tex-Mex classic) is no less legitimate than a taco al pastor (an iconic Mexico City snack appropriated from the roasting preparation Lebanese immigrants brought with them in the 20th century). The same goes for Velvet Taco’s fare or the Taco Bell-Frito Lay chimera, the Doritos Locos Tacos.
Today, I temporarily separate the categories. The specialty/gourmet/gringo/upmarket/whatever you want to call the tacos that do not adhere strictly to a misplaced perception of the uber-traditional deserve as much praise and scrutiny as the liquid fire of the guisado verde from La Nueva Fresh & Hot or the crackerjack carnitas from El Pueblo Restaurant on Jefferson Avenue. This list, then, gives greater attention to tacos and restaurants who have earned it. And now—with old favorites and double-takes—in no particular order:
Thai Chihuahua at Taco Republic
Putting every creative taco on an even playing field—and tortillas made from nixtamal—gives this Richardson fast-casual concept a leg up. Most are whiz-bang wonders. The Thai Chihuahua shook me. Instead of some cloying drivel, the taco—with its carnitas marinated in hoisin, cabbage and carrot slaw and a salsa with a kick-in-you-in-the-throat sriracha base—is a singular delight in Dallas’ crowded taco marketplace.
SoCo at Good 2 Go Taco
Monstrous and likely to send you back to bed, the flour tortilla envelope strains under the pleasurable weight of eggs, potatoes, biscuit and gravy. If you’re eating breakfast at noon, take the substantial dish to Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House, next door. Nothing goes better with a dreamy taco made with local ingredients than local craft beer. Nothing.
Fried Paneer at Velvet Taco
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This selection was the only item I praised in my review of Velvet Taco. The vibrant combination of tomato chutney, Thai basil, tikka and raita over fried paneer (akin to cottage cheese) in a fresh flour tortilla is the sole reason I didn’t write off the specialty restaurant as an embarrassment.
Fried Shrimp at Rusty Taco
I had to warm up to Rusty Taco. The breakfast tacos are fine examples of the genre, but it’s the fried shrimp that changed my mind about the small chain. Crunchy and piquant, the number 8 is an homage to the seaside treats of Baja California. It’s also not much of a looker. Nevertheless, when I come across Rusty Taco at local events like Homegrown Music and Art Festival, it’s the first taco I order. I’m also partial to the brisket seasoned with a chipotle, cherry and Dr Pepper BBQ sauce.
Turkey Mole at Torchy’s Tacos
Austin’s gringo-est taco chain opened a Dallas outpost in 2010 to instant praise. Yet, aside from its primo queso, its signature offerings are uneven from visit to visit. They’re also freaking huge. The restaurant’s November taco of the month, Turkey Mole, on the other hand, is modest and delicious. Like aforementioned fried shrimp, the Turkey Mole is informed by tradition. Mole, in this case, in the Poblano style, is a dish reserved for holidays. It’s laborious. It’s complicated. It’s exceptional. If only it was available year round.