The 2015 Taco Trail Year in Review and Taco Honorable Mentions

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It’s been a sweet year for tacos.

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. Continue reading

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Filed under Best of, Mexico City, Reviews, Tacoventura, Texas

El Mercadito Taqueria

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A three-taco plate at El Mercadito Taqueria.

The Taco Trail began as a way of finding taquerias via DART, but I haven’t sought out tortilla-based eats via public transit for month, as I have been busy with the Texas Monthly taco issue project for more than a year. All of my research has been done via automobile. So it was a pleasant surprise that I came across El Mercadito Taqueria while riding the Green Line recently.

Adjacent to the Burbank Station in an industrial district on the west side of Love Field and next door to Tortilleria El Molino, El Mercadito serves mostly workers looking for quick and cheap meals. Tacos are $2 and are served a few minutes after ordering. There are seven filling options to listed on the menu, among them carnitas, lengua and non-trompo pastor. The day I went, though there was only beef barbacoa, chicharron en salsa verde and fajita were available. Continue reading

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Los Torres Taqueria Is Closed

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The astonishing taco ahogado de birria estilo Sinaloa.

The home to the best taco in Dallas is gone. It closed last week. Speaking over the phone, co-owner Ramiro Torres said despite their best efforts, the family could not come to a new lease agreement with the landlord. Moreover, Torres told me, his sister Eva, could no longer manage the restaurant. She was burned out. Luis Perez, owner of La Norteña Tortilleria, the provider of Los Torres’ default Northern Mexican-style tortillas, said the family placed their final order last Saturday. This confirmation comes after I rode the bus past the restaurant Thursday night, noticing it was dark. The news does more than sadden me. It makes me physically ill.

Los Torres was the best taqueria in Dallas and served the best taco in Dallas, but to me it went beyond superlatives, beyond naming the taco ahogado as one of Texas Monthly’s top 10 tacos in the Lone Star State in their December issue. The little taqueria opened in 2012 at the rundown intersection of Clarendon and Edgefield. It’s neighbors were an elementary school, an auto shop and a laundromat. It was also 10 blocks from my house, and I was the first writer to review it. It was a helluva find. It reaffirmed traditional tacos while challenging American notions of Mexican food and tacos. The Sinaloan-style tacos heavy on the earthy-spiced goat meat served in gauzy handmade flour tortillas changed everything. Eating there forced me to reevaluate my list of Dallas’ great tacos, and I couldn’t help returning again and again, usually with my son. Los Torres became the father-and-son hang. Eva and the other woman overseeing the day-to-day operations doted on my then four-year-old boy. It’s at Los Torres that he earned the nickname Taquito. He had the run of the place, and would play among the tables and ride his bike inside between bites of carne asada and barbacoa tacos. Continue reading

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Join Me at Urban Taco’s Agave Trail Dinner Co-hosted by Texas Monthly, With Special Guest Revolver Taco Lounge

Los tacos. A La Tuma y Bistek Campechano

Campechano and a la Tuma tacos with elote/Courtesy Urban Taco

By now you’ve read Texas Monthly’s December issue, “The 120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die,” and you’ve begun sketching an itinerary to scarf them all. Thursday, December 10, you’ll be able to check off your list Urban Taco’s taco al pastor a la Tuma, one of top 10 tacos in Texas. You’ll do so at the multicourse Agave Trail Dinner at the taqueria’s flagship location on Dallas’ McKinney Avenue. The dinner is something Urban Taco, Lala’s Cakes and myself—a contributor to the issue—along with Texas Monthly have put together to celebrate tacos, Texan and Mexican, and the wonder that are agave spirits.

Each course will be paired with an agave spirit (e.g., mezcal, tequila, raicilla) in the form of a flight, cocktail and/or in the food, including the appetizer of mezcal-cured ceviche over a chicharrón tostada, a dish created for the dinner. The details follow. Continue reading

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The Taco Trail to Texas Monthly

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The taco de colita de pavo at Flores Meat Market in El Paso.

¡Saludos! Welcome. You likely arrived here via Texas Monthly’s The 120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die issue. Thanks. I began working on that editorial package more than a year ago, when Pat Sharpe, the magazine’s food critic, and I initiated a conversation about what form a taco issue would take. Eventually we designed an evaluation sheet (printed in the magazine for your use); set about organizing a team (small but mighty); a schedule (grueling); and what I would contribute (a joyful lot). It was a dream come true for me.

I kicked off my exploration of Texas’ taco landscape in 2010, shortly after moving to the state. Initially I focused on exploring Dallas via public transit. Then I widen my scope to suburbs like Richardson and Addison. Fort Worth was next. Along the way, I ate tacos across Austin, where I have family and friends. Eventually I set my sights on San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley.

Texas and its tacos are beautiful, I thought.  Continue reading

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Dia de los Puercos

Photo: Four Corners Brewing

For a couple of years now, I’ve partnered with Four Corners Brewing Co., maker of my go-to IPA, El Chingón, for taco events. I can’t seem to stop. Sharing tacos comes with my job description. The last one was Taco Night, a trompo taco-and-beer fiesta featuring Dallas’ best practitioners of tacos al pastor and tacos de trompo. Next up I’m helping out with Four Corners’ third-annual Dia de los Puercos on Sunday, November 1.

Inspired by the tradition of Día de los Muertos, it’s a day where we invite people to come celebrate “el día de hoy”…the “here and now”…with friends and family. For us, that simply includes fun people, great music, pork-centric eats and some tasty brews. Continue reading

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First Bite: Resident Taqueria

A taco tray at Resident Taqueria.

A taco tray at Resident Taqueria.

Taco shops open and close every day, and few notice. It seems that everyone noticed Resident Taqueria opened. The restaurant, owned by husband and wife Andrew and Amy Savoie and designed by the Guest Group, has been one of my most anticipated taqueria openings of 2015. Andrew is a chef who honed his craft in renowned kitchens like Jean-Georges before taking root in Dallas’ Lake Highlands neighborhood, where Amy grew up. Both went all in on this concept of a taco spot geared toward the locals, a family restaurant, but with thoughtful fare that shows deference to the taco’s history and Mexican ingredients. Everything from the agua fresca to the signage and tortillas would be handmade. What a taqueria should be. So it’s been, and it’s been nuts.

That goes for the peppy peanuts claiming real estate on Resident’s tacos and for the buzz. Continue reading

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Filed under DFW, first bite, Lake Highlands, Reviews, Texas

The Santa Fe Taco Trail

Photography: José R. Ralat

Eloisa’s pastrami tacos

There are state-sanctioned roadmaps for New Mexico’s green chile burgers and breakfast burritos. They are points of pride, and going Christmas-style on the breakfast burrito at Tia Sophia’s Restaurant, considered the home of the tortilla-wrapped morning behemoth, is proof enough. No such document exists for The Land of Enchantment’s tacos. But they are just as worthy of recognition as any of New Mexico’s signature foods. That’s what I realized during a trip to Santa Fe last week for the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. Indeed, nearly all the Santa Feans I spoke with while visiting the city raved about their city’s tacos. I took their advice and hit the trail for Santa Fe tacos, beginning with the most recommended of the bunch. Continue reading

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Twister Tacos

Twister Tacos in Odessa is housed in a former fast-food joint building.

Twister Tacos in Odessa is housed in a former fast-food joint building.

Taquerias can find homes anywhere the local health department will allow them to set up shop. In the case of Twister Tacos in Odessa, Texas, it’s an old Mexican fast-food spot with a new paint job. The ruined concrete on the front patio remains where it fell, perhaps during a previous incarnation. I imagine it as a result of an AT-AT with a driver in need of his eyes examined.

The eyes are deceiving at Twister Tacos. The 11-year-old taqueria, whose current owner took over for her sister in January, advertises tacos al pastor straight from the trompo, but no trompo is visible on the premises. When I asked about the contraption, the owner’s daughter, who was running the cash register, stalled answering and when she did answer, her speech trailed off into mumbling.

The look of the pork filling deepened my doubt of the al pastor’s provenance. It looked more like pork chop resting in house-made chewy, flavor-neutral corn tortillas.

There is a winner here, though. Continue reading

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John Tesar’s Plans for El Bolero Mexican Restaurant

El Bolero's tacos al pastor.

El Bolero’s tacos al pastor.

John Tesar is a no slouch. He is owner and executive chef at Knife. He has a cookbook in the works with Jordan Mackay, co-author with Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto. He is developing an Italian restaurant concept. And he is partner-operator at Apheleia Restaurant Group’s Oak. There he has tweaked and streamlined the kitchen and menu and business is improving. Now comes news that he is doing the same at El Bolero, Apheleia’s upscale Mexican spot, after ownership and El Bolero’s opening executive chef parted ways last month.

My only dining experience at El Bolero was the restaurant’s first night of service, when the menu was limited and the service extremely attentive. I had ample time to speak with co-owner John Paul Valverde (whose Coeval Studio also designed the gorgeous space) that night. We talked about the need for a variety of salsa options. I lobbied for a plethora of choices like those available in Mexico City: whole beans, French fries, salsas of every color and Scoville heat unit. I spoke with a manager about agave spirits, and he customized a mezcal flight for me. All of this from the best seat in the house—at the bar in front of the trompo, where I got to watch the taquero work his knife against the spinning top of marinated pork. The tacos al pastor on fresh corn tortillas were good but the execution needed flare. Part of eating these Mexico City favorites is the show taqueros put on for customers, flicking knives this way and that, attempting to catch pineapple slices behind their backs.

I don’t know if the spectacle has been upped since El Bolero opened, but I do know that the trompo isn’t going anywhere. As Valverde told me via Facebook, “[The] trompo is always going to be there.” While that is a relief, like many with deep love and respect for tacos and Mexican regional cuisines, I was leery of how an Anglo chef—no matter how talented and respectful—would treat the food. Anglo-driven “Modern Mexican” has show more disregard than understanding when it comes to the tradition and history of Mexican food.

During a phone conversation, Tesar went a long way to assure me of his seriousness.

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