Editor’s Note: This article, originally published in March 2014, is being resurfaced in honor of National Taco Day.
Robert Flicker recently experienced a conversion—of the tortilla-wrapped variety. “I’d been a believer that a truly great taco must be served in a dive and consist of chicken, beef, or pork,” says the Nevada communications executive.
But the taco appetizer at Mandalay Bay’s Fleur—with tuna tartare, ponzu, serrano peppers, and an avocado cream—changed his mind. “It elevated the taco,” he praises, “into the realm of fine-dining legitimacy.”
For comfort-foodies who embrace the nuances of grass-fed burgers and artisan donuts, the taco is finding a new picante status. Even high-end gourmands are on board: chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s award-laden Noma recently tweeted his enthusiasm for the distinctly non-high-end, Queens-based Tacos Morelos.
When we looked around the nation for the best tacos, we focused primarily on taquerias where the hand-held delicacy gets top billing—and we still found more style and variety than could fit in any one Tuesday.
Many purist taquerias give thoughtful renditions of classic Mexican street tacos like the al pastor (spit-grilled pork), carnitas (braised pork), or barbacoa (which can refer to beef, lamb, or goat); others offer more exotic twists. In Arizona, you can find a Peking duck taco paired with fried Brie, while an East Nashville mainstay turns out a sweet-potato-and-quinoa version. And a few beloved holdouts still go hard-line with the hard shells, topped with good ol’ shredded iceberg.
“A great taco presents a blend of textures and flavors that merge with a tortilla,” says StreetGourmetLA and Los Angeles magazine food blogger Bill Esparza. “It must become a stew once you take the first bite.”
Here’s where to chow down on America’s best tacos from that first bite to the messy last, every day of the week.
This taqueria started as a tiny truck in New York’s biggest hotbed for tacos—Jackson Heights, Queens—and has since spawned branches in Williamsburg and the East Village (including a new four-table restaurant). It does classic, authentic tacos, such as the al pastor, carnitas, lengua, and barbacoa, each double-stack of handmade corn tortillas topped with cilantro, onions, guacamole, and hot sauce. The showstopper, though, is the placeros (“market tacos”), which acts as a blue-plate surprise: the tacos are filled with a daily special, such as a gooey, cheese-filled chile relleno with rice. Need further enticement? Noma’s René Redzepi is a huge fan. 438 E. 9th St.; (347) 772-5216
With locations in Boyle Heights and Echo Park, this taqueria focuses on Mexico City–style guisados (traditional meat braises), with the biggest crowd-pleaser being the peppery cochinita pibil—slow-roasted pork, with pickled red onions on top. Rotating guisado stews also include costillas en mole negro (pork riblets in a dark mole sauce), old-fashioned menudo (tripe), and the test-your-machismo peppers-only chiles torreados (roasted serrano, Fresno, Thai, jalapeño, and habanero). If you can’t commit to one filling, ask for the Taco Sampler, comprising six tiny tacos piled on mini handmade corn tortillas.
Located in a rehabbed Methodist church that dates back to 1893—and which still features the original stained glass and wooden pews—this Phoenix taqueria promises a near-spiritual experience. The menu offers both so-called old world and new school tacos: “old world” includes a coffee-braised beef, topped with caramelized onions and mango-jicama relish, while “new school” offerings include a Peking duck taco with plum sauce, poblano-apricot compote, and fried Brie, as well as a Thai snapper taco with coconut green curry.
Reaching Lone Star State dominance (with locations in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Waco, and even Lubbock), Torchy’s Tacos started in Austin as a food truck whose owner zipped around on his scooter passing out free chips and green salsa. Today’s menu pays homage to the state capital’s politicos: The Republican (grilled jalapeño sausage with cheese and pico de gallo on a flour tortilla), The Democrat (shredded barbacoa and avocado on corn), and The Independent (fried portobello with roasted corn, spicy pickled carrots, and refried black beans). Apolitical types can opt for The Trailer Park, a batter-fried chicken breast topped with sautéed green chiles. Either way, make room for the green-chiles-and-jalapeño-loaded queso.
Long before San Francisco became known as the mother ship for foodies, the city was famed for its Mission burritos, those kitchen-sink wonders wrapped in foil. And while this Mission District institution—one of the best Mexican restaurants in the U.S.—offers a somewhat anti-establishment burrito (it’s rice-free), it continues to stand out among the local taquerias for its Mission-burrito-hearted carnitas taco, which features two shells (one hard, one soft and lined with cheese) generously stuffed with meat, beans, and salsa.
It’s a long way from Baja, but this taco and burrito cart (operating from a toothily-painted truck called Mr. Bomber Van Sharkson) embraces the Atlantic Coast’s South of the Border flavors—like jerk chicken and tropical fruit. Try the Cayo Fish Taco, which features mahimahi, mango, jalapeños, cabbage, and a Caribbean sauce, or the Yum Yum Shrimp Taco, which showcases the local Key West pinks.
Embracing a honky-tonk spirit, with such patron saints as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, the Wicker Park taqueria—one of America’s best outdoor restaurants—keeps its menu pared down, with just five authentic taco options, including an al pastor (grilled pork with pineapple) and a taco panza (crispy pork belly with guajillo sauce). And while traditional honky-tonks rarely speak of “pairings,” here your beverage choice is considered vital: Big Star’s drink menu has two dozen beers, as many tequilas, and nearly 60 whiskeys, ryes, and bourbons. If none of those suit, you can wash down your taco with a house dulce de leche milkshake.
With locations in both the Northwest and Southeast parts of town, this PDX taqueria (abbreviated “Mmm”) takes its inspiration from the stewlike guisados of Mexico City’s street food. The meat- or veggie-based stews are piled onto nixtamal tortillas, a more textured version than the more common, masa-based tortillas. The rotating menu of guisados can include plenty of veggie options—say, potatoes with cactus—as well as exotic meat guisados such as blood sausage, rabbit, or even colitas de pavo (smoked turkey tails).
This former Winnebago-based food truck boasts of being “the best thing in Nashville since country music,” with a menu that reflects an East Nashville hipster bent more than good ol’ boy tastes. Its brick-and-mortar home is known for its sweet potato and quinoa taco and a fried avocado taco, though you can also get authentic Mexican street-food sides, such as grilled corn on the cob (elote) rolled in mayo, spices, and Cotija cheese.
Talk about purist: at this 53-year-old San Antonio mainstay, Tex meets Mex head-on, without any unnecessary distractions. The Brisket Taco features a meal-sized slab of classic smoked brisket on a tortilla, with perhaps just a bit of guac and a side of pico de gallo, while the Pork Chop Taco is just that—a thin, bone-in chop on a flour tortilla with salsa.
Get the rest of the list at Travel + Leisure: Best Tacos in America
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