It was a banner year for tacos and for the Taco Trail. Not only was the Texas Monthly taco issue published, but also Mike Sutter of Fed Man Walking sought out #500 Tacos, and taco books and Mexican cookbooks were let loose into the world. They included Lesley Tellez’s Eat Mexico: Recipes and Stories From Mexico City’s Streets, Fondas and Markets, an excellent introduction to Mexico City’s cuisines through visually fetching photographs and hunger-inducing accessible recipes. The book takes its name from the food tour company Tellez established while living in Mexico City from 2009–2013. If you want an authoritative, immersive account of Mexico City and it’s food culture, Eat Mexico is the book for you. Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman’s TACOS: Recipes + Provocations takes the outsider’s audacious stance, mingles it with what the rest of the country might call a New Yorker’s cockiness, and then infuses it with the sincere desire to learn and adapt. Stupak who is often falsely accused of gringo-izing and cheffing tacos understands the fundamental truth of the taco as a regional representation of a specific time and place based on the tortilla. It’s the use of adjuncts to make tortillas that fascinates me the most. In Mexico and in America’s taco hubs, it’s not unusual to find corn tortillas made with the addition of nopales and chiles. In their book, Stupak and Rothmam offer tortillas made with rye, saffron and more. As for the tacos: I get a kick out of such renditions as the pastrami taco. This is a thing of beauty. It gives us a glimpse of the developing regional New York City taco style, something as legitimate as the San Antonio’s puffy taco or Mexico City’s taco al pastor. Also released this year is Phaidon’s English translation of La Tacopedia, billed as the first comprehensive encyclopedia of taco in Mexico. The original, written by Alejandro Escalante paints taco history and styles with a broad stroke, highlighting major historical markers before diving into regional provenance and the populist nature of taco culture. Infographics displaying the proper method to eating tacos, interviews with longtime taco masters, content listing the breadth of diversity that leaves the reader salivating, a fanciful illustrated map to Mexico’s regional specialty: It’s all there and all cool. It’s everything a taco lover could want. I love La Tacopedia. The English translation, however, is uneven. Take the name of the taco styles: Whereas tacos al pastor are left untranslated to “shepherd-style tacos,” tacos de guisados becomes “stewed tacos” and tacos de canasta becomes “basket tacos.” Readers confident they have a grasp of authentic tacos when they step into a taqueria might be dismayed when stewed tacos or basket tacos aren’t on the menu. That is a minor quibble, because if you want a useful, solid introduction to tacos as an American reader, Tacopedia is your book.
I met Alejandro when he was an honored guest at the North Texas Taco Festival, an event I co-founded in 2013, and was immediately charmed by his humor, passion and knowledge. That trinity was on display during my visit to La Casa de los Tacos, the taqueria co-owned by Alejandro, in Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood, in January of this year. It was at La Casa de los Tacos that my traveling companions and friends Nick Zukin, Robert Strickland, and I began our last night in DF. The dinner there, which included food blogger Gastrobites, artist-food blogger mexicanfoodporn, and Jason Thomas Fritz, Mexico City guide for the great food tour company Club Tengo Hambre, was a mezcal-fueled lesson in how taco history and the innovation can share real estate. You can read more about it here.
What follows is a collection of memorable, noteworthy tacos I enjoyed in 2015, including a few scarfed in Mexico City. Some, like the crab taco at Kiki’s Restaurant, were included in one of my Texas Monthly web exclusive taco roundups but not in the final print edition of The 120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die. Maybe they didn’t score well enough to merit listing in the definitive Texas taco list. Perhaps they weren’t candidates for evaluation during the issue’s research period because they hadn’t been opened for at least a year, or were in a city I wasn’t assigned to evaluate, but nevertheless deserve an honorable mention.
Barbacoa – Cuauhtemoc Café
Named after the last Aztec ruler, this brilliantly colored freestanding restaurant is located on the southern end of the El Paso airport, making for a solid pre-flight taco stop. And the taco to get is the herbaceous, smooth threads of barbacoa de cachete. 6840 Montana Ave., El Paso, TX 79925; 915-881-8747.
Crab Taco – Kiki’s Restaurant
Of course the El Paso version of a California roll is a taco. And the only place to get this unique item is at Kiki’s. Housed in a building more than a century old, the structure has hosted grocers, barbershops, a music store, a pharmacy, and several bars, at least, before becoming a dark, wood-paneled eatery where the staff behind the bar is as likely to breakout into a sing-along of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” on the jukebox as it is to testify about the singularity that is the crab taco. The plate of three crispy tacos is filled with imitation crab, a generous serving of crisp lettuce, heavy-handed helpings of yellow and white cheeses and tomato wedges. The fiery red salsa served on the side balances the shellfish’s sweetness. Don’t sleep on the queso fries with green chiles weaved into the fries. 2719 N. Piedras St., El Paso, TX 79930; 915-565-6713. www.kikisrestaurant.com
Deshebrada – Taqueria La Pila #1
Shredded, stewed beef, mellow and moist is served in three corn tortillas that have been crisped on the flattop, border-style at this cozy joint at the southern end of El Paso’s Taco Row, Alameda Avenue. 8714 Alameda Ave., El Paso, TX 79907; 915-858-0922
Pulpo – Revolver Taco Lounge
A blended salsa taquera de jalapeño, with sharp but not painful spice tops charred threads of leeks imparting a vegetal-straw component to the squid confit, sweet and tender. I hope this taco makes the move from Fort Worth when Revolver Taco Lounge relocates to Deep Ellum early next year. 2822 W. 7th Street, Fort Worth, TX 76107; 817-820-0122. www.revolvertacolounge.com
Enchilaco – Raul’s Enchilacos
Some might call what is served at this impossible-to-miss shack in tiny Floresville, serves a gimmick. I call it a homestyle Texas treat. Raul Vela IV, co-owner along with Saam Miremadi, of Raul’s Enchilacos, told me during my May visit that growing up in the Rio Grande Valley he and his friends would eat enchiladas wrapped in flour tortillas, the namesake enchilacos, as a snack. At Raul’s it’s a little more complex than that: a red corn tortilla cheese enchilada is placed in a flour tortilla and topped with sour cream, avocado and pineapple pico. Upgrade by adding beef barbacoa to the mix and the result is puro comfort. 101 Creekwood Dr., Floresville, TX 78114; 210-394-8437. www.facebook.com/raulsenchilacos
Taco de Costilla – Mi Lindo Oaxaca
As odd as it might seem to American tastes as it seems, tacos de costilla (rib tacos) are an established street food. Usually cooked in a guisado like the delightful pork ribs used at Tortilleria La Sabrocita, the ribs at Mi Lindo Oaxaca are sliced lengthwise and grilled. The bones are not removed. The result is a rib that is lip-curling salty with bolts of pepper interrupted by char resting in a crisped handmade corn tortilla. It would be easier if the bone is removed but where’s the fun in that.
The taco de costilla is no longer listed on Mi Lindo Oaxaca’s menu, but if you ask they might serve a rib on the side of your taco de cecina de puerco (chile-marinated pork served chopped). A spritz of lime, a heavy-handed shot of gum-numbing salsa verde, and you’ve got the makings of a taco unlike any other in Dallas. Of course, this being the only Oaxacan restaurant in Dallas—one where the staff hand-shells the cacao beans to make the chocolate for the mole—you need to eat your way through the menu. The best place to start? One of everything, beginning with a tlacoyo. And if there’s mole, get the mole. 2535 Fort Worth Ave., Dallas, TX 75211; 214-331-5600. www.facebook.com/MI-LINDO-Oaxaca-728301627237297
Fried Squid – San Salvaje
At this vibrant Arts District enclave, the chefs fry up tentacles of tender cephalopod, garnish them with Moroccan-style preserved lemon, and finish it all with a fiery salsa de chile piquín. The restaurant is closed now and ranks among my saddest closures of the year, Los Torres Taqueria’s shuttering being at the top of the list.
Cauliflower – Resident Taqueria
Andrew and Amy Savioe get it. The husband-and-wife team behind Resident Taqueria get tacos, edible representations of a time and place with a tradition marked by flavors and a deep cultural signifier. They have a clear idea of where they live and work, who are their customers and what they want. They know Dallasites in general and Lake Highlands residents—see what did there?—want fresh, creative and approachable tacos, preferably on handmade flour—with corn from nixtamalized masa as an option. They get the breadth of the traditional fillings and preparations, and that’s what they offer.
Take cauliflower, for example, I’ve heard so many middle-class Anglo, young food writers and third-generation Mexican-Americans declare cauliflower is a gringo filling. That is wrong. In Mexico City, it’s offered as a fritter for tacos de guisados. At Resident, though, it’s presented as a healthier option with dark, caramelized streaks banding the cauliflower stalks of resting atop of the flour tortilla, loose like bisabuela’s beloved comforter. Streamers of crisp kale taste and appear like the pressed seaweed called nori are tucked into nooks and ring the vegetable, while pepitas (green pumpkin seeds) add further crunch. 9661 Audelia Road, Ste. 112, Dallas, TX 75238; 972-685-5280. www.residenttaqueria.com
Squash Blossom – Taco Stop
The simplest, straightforward tacos are often the best ones. A no-fuss perfectly grilled cut of steak with lime and guacamole, the quintessential street taco, will have the eater speaking in tongues. There isn’t such a touch in Dallas. But there is the seasonal taco de flor de calabaza (squash blossom taco) at Taco Stop. The summertime special is a lightly cooked down with rajas making for a garden-fresh, sweet-spicy treat in Tortilleria Araiza’s fragrant corn tortillas. 1900 Irving Blvd., Dallas, TX 75207; 972-971-4859. www.tacostopdallas.com
Mini Pastrami Tacos – Eloisa
Hometown boy done good John Rivera Sedlar has proven himself a prominent figure in the New Southwestern cuisine movement, but he did so from Los Angeles until now. Earlier this year, Sedlar returned to his native Santa Fe and opened Eloisa in the Drury Plaza Hotel. If Anasazi’s makeover didn’t eschew a sense of place, Eloisa is appointed as unabashedly modern as modern gets. It’s white and sleek and expansive. But Eloisa—named for Sedlar’s grandmother, whose visage graces plates—serves food with a firm foundation in The City Different without forgetting L.A. The platter of mini pastrami tacos in crispy blue shells, with its roots in the East L.A. Jewish delis of the mid-20th century—where workers were apt to put any kosher meat in a tortilla—is one example. The beef slices, thin and presented atop tangy sauerkraut, are the briny ribbons to the pickled serranos’ kicking bows. The mustard, a required condiment if ever there was one, added the finishing touch to my tour of Santa Fe tacos. 228 E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe, NM 8701; 505-982-0883. www.eloisasantafe.com
Chicken Guacamole – El Parasol
Mention tacos, and Santa Feans enthusiastically ask if you’ve been to El Parasol for the chicken guacamole. After tasting it myself, I understand why. Rich stewed chicken is folded into a corn tortilla and then gets crisped up on the flattop until it’s this side of crunchy. A cool dollop of guacamole, lettuce, and tomato are added before the shimmering yellow parcel is wrapped, bagged, and handed over the counter to the customer to go. (There isn’t much in the way of seating at the nearly 60-year-old restaurant.) The chicken guacamole taco is Santa Fe’s tacos. Equally as good is the beef, which, unlike its treatment in the standard crunchy taco, is served shredded. 1833 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505-995-8015. www.elparasol.com/santa-fe-cerrillos-road
Bistec en Pasilla – Las Cazuelas
At Las Cazuelas, a guisado stand a couple of blocks from my hotel in Mexico City’s colonia Juarez, the bistec en salsa pasilla—tender, squiggly slices of beef in a dark chile sauce chock-full of coffee and chocolate notes, rests on corn tortillas that leave traces of a corn field’s scent on your fingers. Corner of Havre and Londres, col. Juarez, Mexico, DF.
Taco al Pastor and Bistocino – El Vilsito
At auto shop by day-taqueria by night El Vilsito twin trompos shimmer with fire, beckoning passersby. Here, the pork shavings were a dark magenta, resting beneath the standard cilantro, onion, and pineapple on a corn tortilla. During my stop there, I couldn’t resist also trying the menu’s deluxe offerings, including the bistocino, a mix of curled bistec and floppy pink bacon. At $5.37, it was the most expensive item. Whimsy can be costly on either side of the border. Petén 248, col. Narvarte, Mexico, DF.
Pechito and Chile Ancho Relleno-Chapulines – La Casa de los Tacos
Street flair gives way to gussied-up tradition at La Casa de los Tacos. On one plate, brisket tacos—the meat sliced thin, with a pink center and a bumper of fat—bore a trio of scallion stalks. The richness was cut with a pour from one of the six mezcal bottles scattered across our table, where we’d been joined by a few other acquaintances for the beginning of a long goodbye. On another plate were black bean–filled ancho chiles garnished with cheese, caramelized onions, cream, and nutty chapulines, or roasted grasshoppers. I’d never been so happy to have insect tibias wedged between my teeth. Calle Felipe Carrillo Puerto 16, Coyoacán, Mexico, DF. www.facebook.com/Casa-de-los-Tacos-1571711756377766/
Taquitos Don Tavo – Avila’s Restaurant
Skip the brisket tacos at this Dallas Tex-Mex institution. Instead go for the more Mexican Taquitos Don Tavo, corn tortilla purses filled with a peppy beef picadillo or shredded stewed chicken and then fried. You can pry open the tacos to add lettuce, tomato and cheese, or the guacamole-salsa, The duo are brought to the table in a bowl where the creamy avocado mixture plays the island in a sea of roja, but it’s not necessary. 4714 Maple Ave., Dallas, TX 75219; 214-520-2700. www.avilasrestaurant.com
Pollo Deshebrada – Taqueria Tiquicheo
Chicken is stewed in chipotles until it frays with a spicy that sears the back of your eyeballs and then served in dense, handmade white corn tortillas with a heavy chew. Crank up the heat with the salsa pair accompanying the taco: a salsa verde of jalapeño-tomato and salsa roja of chile de arbol and tomato. You might not be able to taste anything for a few hours but the cash-only sacrifice is a small price to pony up for expert cooking. 110 S. Marsalis Ave., Dallas, TX 75203; 214-941-4300.
All the Seafood Tacos – Tacos Mariachi
Seafood tacos are a rare find in Dallas. Great seafood tacos are damn near impossible to find. Enter Tacos Mariachi, Dallas’ only Tijuana-style taqueria. Focused on the border city’s marine bounty, owner Carmona has given the city gems like the smoked salmon taco that lightly evokes lox and topped with a warm wedge of creamy avocado and micro greens for texture. Drizzle habanero-mango salsa for the lot for a nip of candied heat that complements Araiza’s corn field-evoking tortillas. Such a presentation gives away the owner’s pedigree, which includes stints at Knife and Spoon, and the chef’s time as the saucier at The Masion under Dean Fearing. Don’t skip the huitlacoche tacos. 602 Singleton Blvd., Dallas, TX 75212; 214-741-1239. www.twitter.com/TacosMariachi
Pollo al Pastor – Conversos y Tacos Kosher Gourmet Trucks est. 1492
My wife’s family is from El Paso, and I’ve always enjoyed visiting the border town. So, when time came to dole out Texas Monthly taco issue city assignments I pulled a Horshack and called El Paso. I’m glad I did. It had been eight years since my last time in the city but could’ve been a lifetime. The city had exploded with new construction, culinary options, and a renewed sense of unity with its sister city, Juarez.
While I was eating my way across the city for Texas Monthly, I found the intersection of El Paso-Juarez in a taco de pollo al pastor from art installation-kosher food truck Conversos y Tacos, where in between the yums and dangs there was a conversation about the region’s Crypto-Jews and the reclaiming of their place in Latinidad, sparked by artist and Latino Jew Peter Svarzbein. If ever there was a special taco of 2015, the pollo al pastor was it. You can read my full profile of the truck and Peter at MUNCHIES. www.facebook.com/WhyKosherTacos