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 best.
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 new 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; you’ll find them 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 3 percent from 2002. This increasing cultural influence has certainly made its way into the food we eat, with results that are decidedly positive. And 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. And up 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, what 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). 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, 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 35 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. At the same time, several popular favorites made it into the survey but not the final list, like New York’s Empellón, Austin’s popular Tacodeli, and Washington, D.C.’s Oyamel. We’ll also be the first to admit that there are some stellar tacos out there that didn’t cross our radar, so feel free to let us know if you think there’s one that we missed.
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, with 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 either simple or fancy, just made with care and an eye for balance and moisture level; and the topping, 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 and easier to track down those tacos. And a truly great taco is nothing short of a work of art. Click here to learn which 35 tacos are America’s best.