Los Angeles’ Guisados has become an essential Los Angeles taquería, even though it’s only been open for a few years. It currently has two locations (with a third coming soon, according to their website) but the original is located in the heart of Boyle Heights and run by three generations of the De La Torre family, and these folks know what they’re doing, right down to the homemade tortillas. The cochinita pibil is a thing of beauty: pork shoulder is marinated overnight in a citrus-heavy mixture, the simmered for nearly four hours before being shredded. Served with pickled onions, fresh cilantro, and as much habanero salsa as you can handle, it’s a true masterpiece.
Joe’s Bakery was established in 1962, and has been a destination for Tex-Mex breakfast, lunch, and dinner ever since. Recipes have been passed down for generations, and the carne guisada is nothing short of revelatory. Pork butt (as opposed to traditional beef) is slow-cooked in tomato sauce with garlic, cumin, salt, and a little flour, and heaped into a house-made flour tortilla. Belly up to the counter and experience a true Austin original.
Puffy tacos, a San Antonio delicacy, can sometimes be tough and greasy, but the one at Taco Taco is light, airy, and almost out-of-this-world good. In the small, unassuming building, they make all their tortillas from scratch, including delicious flour tortillas, but if you try one thing here, go for the puffy taco with picadillo, or spicy ground beef. The ground beef is mixed with a blend of seasonings, and slow cooked with onions, tomatoes, and a little bit of potato. It's topped with a dash of hot sauce and some lettuce and tomatoes, and you can go home knowing that you’ve eaten a truly great puffy taco. Just make sure you head over for breakfast or lunch: they’re only open until 2 p.m. daily.
This "modern Mexican" restaurant does things its own way: there's a sea trout ceviche with pineapple-aji sorbet, a roasted cauliflower "steak" with chipotle-raisin purée and chile de árbol vinaigrette, and a lump crab tostada with green mango and grapefruit, among other things, so it's hardly surprising that the tacos are non-standard as well. The "Arabic" tacos, for instance, which get high marks for originality and intensity of flavor, combine seared venison with pickled cucumber, chipotle harissa, fennel pollen yogurt, and cilantro, wrapped in a tortilla made — in decidedly non-Arabic style — with bacon fat. Neither classic Mexican nor Tex-Mex, this thing is just plain good.
Pinche Taquería was originally a taco truck, and the name of the shop still harkens a bit of street attitude: "Pinche" isn’t fit to translate on a family website (it’s something you’d say when you’re moved by extreme emotion). Given how good Pinche Taquería’s pork belly "agridulce" is, you too may be emotionally moved. Chef Kevin Morrison has put a modern twist on Mexican street food, serving a sweet-and-sour braised pork belly with candied garlic, cabbage and cilantro slaw, and a nuanced braising jus to add extra flavor and moisture.
In the world of Tex-Mex, Bob’s Taco Station, family-owned since 1991, is one of the all-time greats. And when the mascot is a smiling hard-shell taco proudly holding another taco and wearing a sombrero and cactus-emblazoned cowboy boots, you know you’ve come to the right place. Bob’s is renowned for its pork tamales, breakfast plates, and tortilla soup, but the tacos, served in homemade flour tortillas, are its real claim to fame. There are classic breakfast tacos along with tongue, carne guisada, and barbacoa, rich, beefy, and topped with cilantro and onions upon request. To wash it all down, head next door to their New Orleans-style sno-ball stand.
Since 1958, El Parasol has been serving traditional Mexican classics as well as no-frills American fare like burgers, hot dogs, and chile cheese fries. Only three types of tacos are available (chicken, ground beef, and shredded beef), but what tacos these are: the shell is deep-fried and crackling, and the standout, the shredded beef, is boiled until it’s falling apart and then mixed with a sauce that’s a long-kept secret. Topped with either guacamole or salsa, it’s a crunchy, beefy, Tex-Mex classic.
Wicker Park’s Big Star, from Chicago superstar chef Paul Kahan (of The Publican fame) and chef de cuisine Craig Svozil, combines Mexican street food with a honky-tonk atmosphere, and the results are phenomenal. The menu is small but brilliant: six tacos (including the corn chip-based "walking taco"), a Sonoran hot dog, queso fundido, chips and guacamole, and $3 whiskey shots to wash it all down, all prepared with the expert precision of a world-class chef. The taco al pastor is the first item on the menu and the one to order: pork shoulder is spit-roasted and sliced to order, and served with grilled pineapple, grilled onion, and cilantro. It’s smoky, small enough to eat (more than) a few, and astoundingly delicious, especially after a couple of Big Star Margaritas. You might have to line up to get in, but you’ll be glad you did.
Everybody knows that Rick Bayless, the man behind Chicago’s renowned Frontera Grill, is a scholar of Mexican food, and we appreciate his efforts to teach us about the real thing — but what's more important for present purposes is that he's also a really good cook, capable of producing dishes that we want to return to his restaurants again and again for. Like his tacos arabes, Arab tacos — delicious combinations of roasted, sliced black-pepper pork shoulder, chipotle salsa, cucumber, and jocoque, which is strained Mexican yogurt inspired by Lebanese yogurt just as the roasted meat is inspired by Lebanese shawarma. In Mexico, tacos arabes are often served in a piece of folded-over pita bread, but here, the filling bulges out of perfect corn tortillas.
Tacos, not surprisingly, are the raison d'être (razón de ser?) of this popular eatery. Versions filled with mushrooms, hominy, and epazote or with fried avocado and black beans are popular with local vegetarians, but we love all the variations aimed at carnivores — most of all the cecina taco. Cecina is salted, dried beef, a rustic relative of bresaola. Papalote's cecina taco adds refried beans, shredded cabbage, queso fresco, crema (the thin Mexican sour cream), and guajillo salsa, and the result is simply wonderful.
Atlanta's Buford Highway is chock-full of Mexican groceries hiding excellent taquerías. Supermercado Chicago is one of the finest examples you’ll find, as the ramshackle little room in the back is serving some glorious tacos. If you go during the weekend you’ll experience a much larger menu, but during the week it’s all about the tacos. The carne asada tacos, in particular, are the ones to try: flavorful, deeply seared, and perfect when mixed with any of the handful of fresh-made salsas that are on the side. Be sure to catch a glimpse of the tortilla machine: corn kernels are essentially ground and turned into tortillas to order.
This community in famously posh, white-bread Greenwich may be the last place you'd expect to find real Mexican takeout food, but at El Charrito Carlos and Alex Terron, who also run a popular food truck in neighboring (and more Hispanic) Stamford, have brought southwestern Connecticut a standard of Mexican cooking usually found only in urban Texas or California. The wide variety of taco fillings ranges from chicken, shrimp, and spicy pork adobada to pig's ear, tripe, and cow's tongue. The carnitas tacos are typical: a couple of flavorful steamed corn tortillas with a scattering of sweet, crispy pork bits, minced onions, and cilantro, with lime segments on the side, for squeezing over everything. Simple and perfect.
With more stuff on the walls and floors than a T.G.I. Fridays (including a 1924 Model-T dump truck), a wonderfully raucous jukebox, and an atmosphere that suggests a funky roadhouse more than an urban Tex-Mex place, Ray's — which opened in 1965 — turns out fine versions of the local standards, along with hot dogs, hamburgers, and fish sandwiches. It is particularly famous, though, for its puffy tacos, which weren't invented at Ray's, but may have first been named here. They're light, crisp, and flavorful, and the meltingly soft carne guisada (stewed beef) filling is perfectly spiced and not at all greasy.
Walk all the way to the back of an average-looking bodega in the bustling West Side neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, and you’ll find yourself in a taco paradise. Opened in 2001, Miguel Fuentes’ Tehuitzingo has become renowned for its high-quality tacos, with options for more adventurous eaters like tongue, pork tripe, pork skin, and pig ears as well as classics such as carne enchilada, chicken, chorizo, goat barbacoa, and our (and Eric Ripert’s) favorite, carnitas. It’s slow-cooked, shredded, and seared, then heaped into a corn tortilla and topped with cilantro, onions, and your choice of salsa. Big changes are in store for this place as well: word is making its way around that the shop will be closing soon to renovate, with the possibility that the whole space will be transformed into a full-on taquería.
The beloved Hugo’s has three locations in Los Angeles, and the back story is an interesting one: Mexican-inspired staff meals at Hugo’s Italian restaurant tended to be so popular that the owners had the idea to branch out and open a restaurant devoted entirely to Mexican specialties in Studio City. With an eye toward the all-natural and organic, Hugo’s ordering system is one we can get behind: Choose your filling (chicken, steak, grilled fish, carnitas, al pastor, a mix of zucchini, corn, and string beans, or soy chorizo), choose your salsa (pico de gallo, jalapeño and tomatillo, salsa cruda, honey chipotle, salsa negra, salsa habanero, or salsa arbol) and choose whether you want a hard- or soft-shell taco. Go with the carnitas, along with the habanero salsa if you’re OK with spice. The shredded, glistening pork is rich and flavorful, with plenty of brown edges, and the salsa is a perfect accompaniment.
This Guadalajara-style taquería has several Austin locations, but is not to be confused with the Houston chain of the same name. Meat cooked "al pastor" (shepherd's style) is thought to be an adaptation of the spit-grilled shawarma (like gyro meat) brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. In this case, though, and despite its name, it is usually pork instead of lamb. The meat is marinated, then cooked on a vertical spit with a peeled pineapple skewered above it. The juices of the fruit dribble down, tenderizing the meat, and little shards of pineapple are carved off to be mixed in with it. The tacos al pastor at this Austin favorite are stuffed full of juicy pork, then showered with chopped onions and cilantro and served with an excellent red salsa.
The carne adovada at the James Beard Award-winning Mary & Tito’s Café in Albuquerque is nothing short of legendary, and has been for decades (since 1963, to be exact). The secret to that success? Two words: red chile. The fiery sauce, made simply from ground dried whole chiles, salt, and garlic, tops everything from eggs to chile rellenos, but the carne adovada, juicy and tender marinated and slow-baked pork, is the way to go. If a great taco requires perfection in all of its elements, then the carne adovada at Mary and Tito’s, heaped into a fresh corn tortilla, is undeniably world-class.
A go-to Mexican restaurant for Austinites since 1952, Matt's, which advertises itself as having the "Best Mexican Food in the World — Always Good," is a big place with a big menu. Dishes like the smoked duck enchiladas, the grilled shrimp with bean and cheese flautas, and even the chicken-fried steak ("cowboy-style" with chili) have their loyal fans, but the tacos are terrific. The al carbón version offers grilled beef tenderloin pieces wrapped in flour tortillas, with guacamole, rice, beans, chile con queso, and pico de gallo on the side, adding up to a serious meal.
At the no-frills, order-at-the-counter Tacomiendo, where you'll hear much more Spanish than English spoken, the tortillas are homemade, the prices are reasonable, and the tacos are big. Burritos are a favorite here, but the tacos get high marks, too — and if you don't mind carbo-loading, the unusual potato taco, potato chunks and cheese in a crispy shell, is certainly memorable.
Mexicali Taco was founded by two friends, Esdras Ochoa and Javier Fregoso, in 2009, and it quickly carved out such a niche as one of the best taco stands in the already crowded Los Angeles scene that two years later they opened a brick-and-mortar location. The tacos here don’t play around: they’re big and full of meat, and the carne asada is prepared the right way, seasoned with a secret blend of spices and char-grilled on a smoking hot fire. You haven’t had truly great carne asada until you’ve had it from Mexicali.
Henry’s may not be able to claim authorship of the term "puffy tacos" (Ray’s Drive Inn claims that honor), but it does claim to be the "home of the original 'Puffy Tacos' in San Antonio since 1978" — and it is an iconic spot for San Antonio’s signature dish. Henry Lopez (who actually grew up in California) is retired, but his legacy continues at the family’s friendly, eponymous strip-mall restaurant run by his sons Rick, Robert, and Jaime and their sister, Imelda Lopez Sanchez. The famed tortillas are made in-house, fried so that they puff out, creating a fun way to eat what otherwise is a relatively conventional Tex-Mex taco. You have the puffy tortilla shell filled with the meat of your choice (spicy beef fajita is the most popular), topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, grated cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. With truly great puffy tacos, the shell shatters a little, adding textural variation to each bite into the meat and condiments, and that’s exactly what happens here.
Locals and visitors alike fill this big, boisterous, absolutely dependable Tex-Mex restaurant and bakery — bedecked with Christmas lights and open 24 hours a day — for fajitas platters, enchiladas and quesadillas, and more (including first-rate menudo for breakfast), but the flour-tortilla tacos are possibly the best in town — especially the ones filled with carnitas Michoacan, pieces of pork marinated in orange juice and spices and perfectly fried, and presented with guacamole, pico de gallo, and beans.
Regardless of the fact that the Maxwell Street Market isn’t in its original location, it’s pretty cool to think that the birthplace of the "Maxwell Street Polish" is now the home one to some of Chicago’s, and America’s, best Mexican food, if only on Sunday’s from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The La Paz stand on Desplaines between Roosevelt and Polk streets in the South Loop is just one of the many tarp-covered makeshift stands that draws lines for hours, but few can argue that it isn’t one of, if not the best. Homemade tortillas are pressed and topped with all the classics, from barbacoa to carne asada, huitlacoche, al pastor, and squash blossoms. Those tortillas, covered with your meat of choice, chopped onions, cilantro, and the super-hot salsa verde on the dollar-store-tablecloth-draped folding tables, leave you wishing you’d ordered two more, and little room to try anything from Rubi’s, Manolo's, and Tacos D.F., all exemplary in their own right, but not quite as amazing as this unassuming stand.
Located a couple of blocks from Queens’ Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Tortilleria Nixtamal isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a tortilla factory. Opened in 2008, it’s quickly developed a reputation as one of New York’s premier taco spots, and with good reason: just about everything they offer is astoundingly delicious. Tortillas are made from non-GMO corn, with no additives or preservatives, and meat comes from Franco’s, a local butcher. While the lamb barbacoa and homemade chorizo are certainly delicious, you won’t want to leave without trying the carnitas. Chunks of pork are slow-cooked for more than two hours in lard, and then simply topped with onion, cilantro, and a little hot sauce. It’s taco perfection.
Dora’s Deli has two locations in Walla Walla, Wash., one of which is in the back of a bait-and-tackle shop called Worm Ranch. But while that just might be the most unappetizing restaurant name in history, don’t be dismayed. Dora’s vegetable tacos are seemingly simple, but undoubtedly delicious. Corn tortillas, made in-house, are filled with lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, shredded mozzarella, rice, beans, avocado, and either a hot or medium salsa, and the ingredients play so well together that it’ll give even meat lovers pause. We don’t know how they do it, but Dora’s has nailed the vegetarian taco.
At Chicago’s family-run Birrieria Zaragoza, goat is the name of the game. Namely, the roasted goat taco, or birria tatemada, based on a recipe that’s more than 100 years old. The goat is steamed for around five hours, then rubbed with an ancho chile-based red mole sauce before being roasted and served on house-made corn tortillas with fresh condiments including onion, cilantro, red salsa, and roasted chiles. You can request any part of the goat you like, but we suggest you go with the pistola, or shank. It’s juicy, tender and full of flavor, a bite worth seeking out if you’re even a passing fan of falling-off-the-bone meat. And who isn’t?
The best way to explain how Chico’s serves one of America’s best tacos is to say how improbably bad this small chain and its fare appear at first. Signs outside the drab, unimpressive buildings give no indication of its signature dish: three rolled "tacos" containing ground beef covered in finely shredded cheese, all soaked in translucent red "salsa" in a white cardboard boat, and topped with jalapeño salsa. Take the cheese (government issue?), which is so finely shredded you could swear you see powder. But something happens with that first bite. The "flautas" are crunchy, but soaked in the salsa the crispness begins to give. And though it's more like a thin broth, there's surprisingly good flavor. The heat of the broth melts the cheese, turning it into a soupy mess of flavor punched up by the heat of the jalapeño sauce. There's a hot, dip-with-every-bite experience, and no need for plastic utensils. You pick one up, bite, dip, and bite again until they're gone and you're left with a quarter-inch of cheese and sauce that begs drinking. Do all the quotation marks mean this is a meaningless Zagat review? Absolutely not. Why are they here? Because these aren’t tacos in the purest sense. But they aren’t flautas either. And so, for all intents and purposes, they’re one of America’s best tacos. And if you haven’t had one yet and are talking them down, you likely have no idea what you’re talking about.
The fresh flavors and simple but perfect presentations at this casual, counter-service Santa Barbara landmark draw long lines daily (this was local resident Julia Child's favorite Mexican restaurant). Though the vegetable tamales, cheese-stuffed pasilla chiles, chorizo quesadillas, and the like have strong followings, it's hard to beat La Super-Rica's exquisitely minimalist adobado tacos: just made-from-scratch corn tortillas (you can watch them being patted by hand, through a window into the kitchen, while you're waiting to order) laden with marinated pieces of pork with plenty of crispy edges. That's it. Add pico de gallo or other condiments from the salsa bar, and there you are.
Located inside a restored theater in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, El Real serves Tex-Mex classics like chile con carne, nachos, and Frito pie, but we recommend you head directly for the San Antonio Puffy Taco Plate, with smoked chicken. The deep-fried shell gets a smear of refried beans, then the smoked chicken (which is smoked whole before being shredded) is liberally applied. Lettuce and tomato come on top, and it’s a taco you’re not likely to forget any time soon.
Santa Fe is known for its green "Hatch" chiles, and their near-supernatural ability to pair perfectly with just about any type of food you can think of. At The Shed, in business since 1953, their chiles are grown especially for them and are brought in fresh daily, then processed on-site. One of the best applications of this spicy green sauce that you’ll find in the city is on the restaurant’s Taco Plate: two fresh blue corn tortillas with baked chicken topped with green chile, Cheddar cheese, onion, lettuce, and tomato. The chicken is perfectly cooked, but the chile is the real star of the show (as is the stellar posole that comes with it).
At Torchy’s, which has locations throughout Texas (centered in Austin, Dallas, and Houston), owner Michael Rypka has created tortilla-bound concoctions that are nothing short of devilish, and made fresh every day. There’s the Brush Fire (Jamaican jerk chicken, grilled jalapeños, and mango), the Dirty Sanchez (scrambled eggs with fried poblano chile, guacamole, escabeche carrots, and shredded cheese) and The Republican (grilled jalapeño sausage with shredded cheese and pico de gallo), but the wildest and most delicious, creation on the menu is the Trailer Park, a massive battered and fried hunk of chicken breast, topped with sautéed green chilies, lettuce, pico de gallo, and shredded mixed cheese on a flour tortilla from El Milagro, topped with poblano sauce. If you prefer to "get it trashy," they’ll replace the lettuce and replace it with cheese sauce. And who needs lettuce when cheese sauce is an option?
This Los Angeles Westside institution is famous for its plump burritos (like one with chili con carne and refried beans that people dream about), but for good old American-style tacos — the kind purists scorn — it's hard to beat this place. The beef is long-cooked and shredded, not ground; the shredded Cheddar is tart; the julienned iceberg is crisp and cool. It’s nothing short of hard-shell taco perfection.
With Los Tacos No. 1 setting up in Chelsea Market, there’s about one thing to say on behalf of taco-crazy New Yorkers when it comes to defending their assertions that they now have one of America’s best tacos: God help you. West Coasters who haven’t even sought out the city’s best will likely have too much of a chip on their shoulder to admit it, many so-called East Coast taco experts haven’t a leg to stand on to combat the cliché that there are no good New York tacos anyway, and it’s going to seem pretty outrageous to declare a place open for less than a year as one that serves one of America’s finest, so good luck with all that. But who cares anyway? Texans and Californians be damned, it’s true. Los Tacos No. 1 serves a taco so good that you could dare anyone to taste it blindfolded against their supposed classic favorite confident and they’d secretly be worried they’d choose Los Tacos No. 1 instead. And Californians and Texans should have no reason to begrudge them anyway — it’s a collaboration of three close friends from Tijuana, Mexico, and Brawley, Calif., for crying out loud, guys who heard the East Coast plight and wanted to proselytize the West Coast expertise. Forget reason. Let’s go to taste. You really can’t go wrong whether you go with adobo or pollo, but the winner is the red chile-marinated pork, the adobada. Moist. Salted. Flavorful. Sweet but not cloying. Accoutrements. Proper moisture and accurately delivered tortilla. There are expertly prepared salsas. Dress it yourself. You’ll shut up because your mouth will be full and you will be happy. (You shouldn’t need to undersell them New Yorkers, but like dealing with that difficult friend, loved one, or sibling, you know well enough that introducing your West Coast friends to Los Tacos No. 1 will mean bumping into them there getting their fix.)
When it comes to leaders of a culinary genre, there are few restaurants in America with greater gravitas for their respective focus than San Francisco’s La Taquería has for tacos. That challenges it, and its tacos (carnitas among them, quite arguably the best) with quite a heavy reputation to live up to. La Taquería, just one of the Mission’s casual Mexican joints, does things the way they should be done: fresh. As if the amazing rice-free burritos weren’t enough (you’ll never notice it was even missing), there are the tacos. And sorry, anyone who references El Farolito as a counter-argument for anything San Francisco taco-related, and especially when it comes to La Taquería, is lost.
For years, anyone interested in America’s best tacos has at least heard of Ricky Piña and his Ensenada-style fish, shrimp, and (when you’re lucky) lobster tacos. This self-described former florist turned Baja fish taco maker worked under a makeshift tent surrounded by shaky metal folding chairs just blocks from Umami Burger in Silver Lake. It didn’t seem legal, so it wasn’t shocking when he was shut down in February amid rumors that local businesses (Including a taco spot) had repeatedly called the health department on him. But Ricky turned up, this time in Chinatown, where you can find him on weekends from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., or until he runs out (check his Twitter feed). Why are the tacos at Ricky's so good? Size isn’t everything, but not only is the seafood fresh, the tacos are huge. Lobster is longer than your hand, the fish taco is wider than the two quality corn tortillas it’s served on, and the seafood is fried in a batter that becomes really crispy and crunchy, while letting everything stay juicy inside. You get a covering of super-fresh slices of cabbage, crema, pico de gallo, and a variety of sauces (including a fresh tomatillo salsa). Everything is simple but delicious. What’s the secret besides good ingredients, killer sauces, and seasoning? First, Ricky has mastered the par-fry. Around the fryer are par-cooked pieces that get fried to order—but the fry doesn’t feel greasy. Second, there’s the batter, whose composition seems to be a matter of dispute. Many report it as a beer batter, but a few years ago, when asked by The Daily Meal, Ricky gave a puzzling answer, "Wheat flour, oregano, mustard, salt, and pepper." Beer? "No beer. But if I was going to use beer, then Tecate." Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing right. And reports of a Ricky moving into a food truck should finally make his accessibility wider, too.