50 Best Tacos in America

These aren’t just tacos, they’re works of culinary art

El Real Tex Mex Cafe
At Houston's El Real Tex Mex Cafe, a deep-fried taco shell filled with shredded smoked chicken is the stuff dreams are made of.

When you close your eyes and picture a perfect taco, what do you see? Is it the Ortega taco-night special: a hard-shell taco, spiced ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce, and tomato? Or is it something from your favorite taco stand: two small corn tortillas, shredded pork, onions, and cilantro? Or maybe something in between? There are plenty of tacos out there, from fried fish to pork with pineapple, and from roasted goat to cow’s tongue, and we set out to find America’s 50 best.

50 Best Tacos in America (Slideshow)

First, let’s define what exactly a taco is. By the broadest definitions, it’s a handheld, folded, unleavened flatbread encasing something edible. And while some companies might be able to get away with calling the Choco Taco or Taco Bell’s waffle taco a taco, for our purposes we’re defining a taco as meat or vegetables placed onto a warmed tortilla, with the express purpose of folding it and eating it with one hand. And man, there are some amazing tacos out there.

One great thing about a taco is that it’s one of the most democratic foods known to man. You’ll find them at the most homespun, rustic roadside shacks as well as on the menu at some of the country’s most high-end Mexican restaurants. One reason they’re so popular is because they’re so inexpensive, usually selling for just a couple of bucks. The low price and smallish size also makes it easy to become a self-styled taco expert, as seeking out great tacos and eating as many different varieties as possible is as honorable a pastime as any. On our quest for the country’s best, we tracked down not only authentic Mexican offerings but also Tex-Mex tacos and a few that are decidedly not authentically Mexican but delicious nonetheless.

Even though tacos trace their roots to Mexico, they’re quickly becoming more and more of an American staple. The 2012 census found that nearly 17 percent of the U.S. population is now Hispanic or Latino, up more than three percent from 2002. This increasing cultural influence has certainly made its way into the food we eat, with results that are decidedly positive. From Baja-style tacos (grilled or fried fish typically topped with slaw, pico de gallo, and sour cream-based sauce) to chopped meat from a cow’s head (cabeza), the possibilities really are limitless.

Tacos are a food that inspires fierce loyalty. Ask someone in Texas (Austin, in particular) where the country’s best tacos are and they’ll tell you’ve found it. But head to Los Angeles and you’ll meet people convinced that there’s nothing better than a perfectly fried fish taco. And you know what? They’ll both be right. New Yorkers have complained for years that it’s tough to find a great taco in their city, but in recent years several have been introduced that rival the best you’ll find in Mexico. Over in Chicago, a town that has never exactly been a taco paradise, the Maxwell Street Market is becoming a world-class taco destination.
In order to assemble our ranking of America’s best tacos, we asked more than 200 of the nation’s leading food writers and taco authorities to send over a list of their absolute favorite tacos in the country. Not taquerías, mind you, but individual tacos they believe to be the absolute finest offering from their favorite taco shops. We asked them to include only brick-and-mortar taquerías as opposed to trucks, carts, and the like (that’s a ranking for another day, and also rules out Los Angeles’ popular Ricky’s). We also didn’t include breakfast tacos, because most would agree that those are an entirely different food altogether. We rounded out their submissions with tacos mentioned in best-of lists, both in print and online, as well as our personal favorites, and then assembled a list of more than 150 tacos, which we divided by region: East Coast, Midwest, Texas, Southwest, and West Coast. We then invited our panel of experts to vote for their favorites. At the end of the day, we were left with the 50 best tacos in America.

Some of the tacos that made the cut are certainly surprising. In posh Riverside, Conn., for example, an unassuming carnitas taco has won over legions of fans, and in Denver a slab of sweet and sour braised pork belly with candied garlic is quickly becoming one of the city’s must-eats.

So what makes a taco great, exactly? We polled our experts and most replied with similar qualifications: Great tacos are simple, with clean, vibrant, and varied flavors, each component able to stand on its own. A perfect taco is balanced in flavor, and not loaded down by extraneous add-ons. The tortilla should be super-fresh and ideally handmade. The filling doesn’t have to be too simple or fancy, just made with care and an eye for balance and moisture level. The toppings, be it onions and cilantro or chipotle harissa, should brighten, heighten, and tie the whole taco together.

Thanks to a growing Latino population and technological advances like, say, the Internet, not only are there more great tacos out there than ever before, but it’s becoming easier to track those tacos down. A truly great taco is nothing short of a work of art. Click here to learn which 50 tacos are America’s best.

50) El Vez, Philadelphia: Grilled Shrimp Tacos al Carbon

Restaurateur Stephen Starr knows what people love to eat, and at Philadelphia’s El Vez he’s bringing top notch Mexican food to the hungry masses. An order of the tacos al carbon is enough to feed two, and the grilled shrimp is the way to go; it’s a masterpiece. Homemade flour tortillas get filled with slightly spicy and super-flavorful shrimp that are hot off the grill, and you can customize how much poblano pepper, pico de gallo, guacamole, and queso fresco you want to add. Thankfully a second location in New York just opened.

49) Laredo Taqueria, Houston: Pork in Red Sauce

Don’t let the long line at this Houston favorite dissuade you; it moves quickly and the final product will be so worth it. If you’re expecting a taco loaded up with cheese, lettuce, onions, and the like, that’s not what you’ll get here. The tacos at Laredo are all about the meat, and that’s all you’ll get. Opt for the super-flavorful and tender pork in red sauce.

Click here to read about the rest of the best tacos in America. 


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26 Comments

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sup

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Ummm, Torchy's started in a trailer in Austin dude. However, they have spread all over the state.

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What did they do? Go to two cities in Texas? The only one they proclaimed "good" in a smallish town they said was Tex-Mex (like it's a good thing). Let me tell you something, Mr. Writer. Tex-Mex is not a taqueria. Tex-Mex is crap like Taco Bell. It is a crappy version of Mexican food that has been horribly Americanized for people that feel trying a new hamburger joint is being adventurous. I grew up in a town in the DFW metroplex with a large Mexican community and some of these list entries makes me wonder who you were surveying...At least something with barbacoa made the list but lengua and buche are the best ;)

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There are no best tacos in America, those are found only in Mejico.

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It ought to be against the law to rate "the 50 best" of all/any foods. Can't we just enjoy what we enjoy w/out it turning into a fuggin competition?

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Can't believe you didnt include Taco Temple in Morro Bay California...When it comes to Tacos, they have no competitors!

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Not even going to touch on the weakness of at least 2/3 of this list, but the actual writing is god-awful. Who let Dan Myers write anything other than taking an order at Chili's?

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Whattt!!!!! NO tacos de barbacoa ????

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Tacolicious doesn't make one of the top 50 tacos in the Bay Area, let alone in the US. La Taqueria is excellent, but their burritos are better than their tacos. Taco Boy, Chico's and Tito's? You're shitting me right?
Way too much New York and Chicago, not enough (and the wrong ones) Bay Area and So Cal.

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This list is a disgrace.

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Laughable list. Are tacos only made in 5 or 6 big cities? I would wager that Arizona and New Mexico have more than a few great taco places. As well as probably a couple dozen other smaller towns in Texas. Ridiculous to have a top 50 and only about 10 cities represented.

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I've eaten Tacos all over America. Your #1&#2 are on point. I've been eating at La Taqueria in SF since the 80's. Has always been the best spot amongst the many in san francisco, and still is. I've complained for the past decade i lived in NYC that i couldn't get a great taco anywhere until #2 came around. Also, many of these other reviewers don't know what they are talking about. Most never do.

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Not a single mention of Arizona? Really? How is this even real?

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Not a single mention of Arizona? Really? How is this even real?

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I agree with you!!! Come on people, Arizona has killer taco stands and restaurants I can't believe not even one made the list?!

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Any list that completely misses Tucson is suspect. To even suspect that San Francisco's Tacolicious could even make the top 50 is laughable, and I live in the city. I'd put Tucson's BK's and Pico De Gallo (whose corn tortillas are the best I've ever had with a taco) on top of it without thinking, not to mention El Guero Canelo and Caramelo King.

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Not sure that foodies in LA would put Hugo's and/or Tito's high on their list, so that tells me something about this list. I ate at Torchy's while in Houston, and although the Trailer taco is good, it contradicts your assertion that a great taco is simple. There's a lot going on in the Trailer — more than need be. And at $4+ it ain't cheap; certainly more than I've ever paid for a taco in pricey California. The table salsa at Torchy's, though, is excellent.

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Not sure that foodies in LA would put Hugo's and/or Tito's high on their list, so that tells me something about this list. I ate at Torchy's while in Houston, and although the Trailer taco is good, it contradicts your assertion that a great taco is simple. There's a lot going on in the Trailer — more than need be. And at $4+ it ain't cheap; certainly more than I've ever paid for a taco in pricey California. The table salsa at Torchy's, though, is excellent.

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Not sure that foodies in LA would put Hugo's and/or Tito's high on their list, so that tells me something about this list. I ate at Torchy's while in Houston, and although the Trailer taco is good, it contradicts your assertion that a great taco is simple. There's a lot going on in the Trailer — more than need be. And at $4+ it ain't cheap; certainly more than I've ever paid for a taco in pricey California. The table salsa at Torchy's, though, is excellent.

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I lost all respect with this list when I dragged down to see San Francisco has the best tacos. HA! SF doesn't sell great tacos. Also they missed Taco Deli, which is another red flag. They had to derive this data from a yelp search for "tacos".

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No, it's true...we have the best tacos. We actually have amazing Mexican food in general; I can assure you that if they did a list of the top burritos in the country, we'd still be #1. Welcome, tourist! Have a taco!

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the best Bay Area tacos are not in SF, they are found over the Bay Bridge in Oakland's awesome and humble taco trucks

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Where is Taco Deli in Austin, TX?!

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I cannot believe that my favorite is not on the list !!!
#1 is the Puffy Taco by Diana Barrios at La Hacienda de los Barrios on Redland Rd. Fab-u-lous !!!

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This list is embarrassing. You clearly looked at all the major cities, pulled their Yelp scores and found the most mentioned tacos.

Tito's tacos in LA is famous because its been there a long time and has become famous, certainly not because their Taco Bell meat is good.

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Perfect response. I live in San Diego and am laughing at many of the tacos on this list. I grew up with better food down the street from me than a lot of what I see here.

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