50 Best Tacos in America (Slideshow)
May 1, 2014
These aren’t just tacos, they’re works of culinary art
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
Yelp/ jason r
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.
48) Mariscos El Pulpo, San Diego: Pulpo Ajillo
When the name of the restaurant is Spanish for “octopus,” you know that the pulpo served there is going to be good, and this hidden-in-plain-sight San Diego gem is a winner. There are three octopus tacos on the menu: one sautéed in garlic butter (mojo de ajo), one in a house chili sauce (enchilada) and the third in a garlic and ancho chile butter (ajillo). Go for the ajillo; tender chunks of octopus are slathered in the most flavorful butter imaginable, topped with a sprinkling of cilantro and onion. If you weren’t a fan of octopus before trying this, you will be once you do.
47) La Lagartija Taqueria, Chicago: Shrimp
This tiny restaurant in an off-the-beaten-path location serves some of the finest tacos in Chicago. The al pastor has won high praises, but the real standout here is the shrimp taco. The shrimp gets a light batter and fry that leaves them crispy, juicy, succulent, and not greasy at all. Topped with a creamy sauce and tucked into a house-made tortilla, this taco might just make you think you’ve been teleported to Mexico.
46) Juan in a Million, Austin: Carne Guisada
This perpetually packed East Austin landmark is best known for its breakfast offerings (including the legendary “Don Juan,” with potato, egg, bacon, and cheese), but if you’re in the mood for lunch, the carne guisada taco filled with a hearty beef stew is super-satisfying. And if you can’t make up your mind between the two, they’ll be more than happy to mix them both together for you.
45) Ramona's, Gardena, Calif.: Ground Beef and Potato Taco
Since 1947, Ramona’s has been turning out some seriously high-quality Mexican food products, including some that are available in grocery stores. There are four restaurants in the Los Angeles area (and one coming soon to Ontario, of all places), and one of the most delicious, and simplest, items on the menu is the hard-shell taco filled with ground beef and potato, topped with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and hot sauce. It’s a thing of beauty and served as an inspiration to the many beef hard-shell tacos that came after it.
44) Bear Flag Fish Co., Newport Beach, Calif.: Basa
An absolute Newport Beach gem, folks line up daily for some of the freshest seafood around, served every way you can imagine: as sushi, in poke and ceviche, in salads, as burritos, grilled in sandwiches, in soups, and finally, in tacos. Made with basa (which is similar to catfish) or another fish of your choice, it’s coated with panko, grilled, and topped with pico de gallo, fresh cabbage, and a curried hot sauce they call Tommy sauce. Fish taco perfection.
43) Taqueria Vallarta, San Francisco: Al Pastor
At this beloved Mission District taqueria, more than a dozen meats stay warm on a circular iron comal. When you place your order it gets a quick crisp before heading into a warm tortilla (also steamed on the comal), then topped with your choice of grilled or fresh onions, grilled jalapeños, or fresh cilantro, and a splash of killer green salsa from a self-serve counter. Opt for the al pastor, which is crispy and will melt-in-your-mouth.
42) La Nueva Fresh & Hot Tortilleria, Dallas: Guisado Verde
Yelp/ Jane Y
The green pork stew known as guisado verde is name of the game at this small tortilleria, which is dominated by a giant tortilla machine that raises the temperature of the room to borderline-inhumane levels. But it’ll be worth it once you receive your order, splash some spicy salsa on top, and head back to your air conditioned car to enjoy. The tortillas are light and soft, the freshest you’ll ever have, and the stew is the ultimate comfort food.
41) Las Cuatro Milpas, San Diego: Shredded Pork
Located in an unassuming Barrio Logan back alley, Las Cuatro Milpas has been serving some of San Diego’s best tacos since 1933. Order up front, grab your table in the middle, and watch tortillas being made in the back. Deep-fried to order, these crunchy tacos are filled with beef, chicken, or pork, but opt for the shredded pork, topped with lettuce and tangy, crumbled goat cheese. The hot sauce — which is made by simmering chile peppers and spices in lard — isn’t for the spice-averse, but is addictively good.
40) Taco Boy, Charleston, S.C.: Tempura Shrimp
This fun cantina on Folly Beach (with a second location downtown) serves some killer margaritas and guacamole, and as the name implies it’s all about the tacos here. Available in 17 varieties ranging from kimchi beef to al pastor to Southwest seared tuna, the tempura shrimp is out-of-this-world delicious. Made with super-fresh shrimp given a quick fry, it’s tender and crispy, topped with cabbage slaw, cilantro, and a zippy remoulade.
39) Seviche, Louisville, Ky.: Mahi Mahi
One of Louisville’s finest restaurants also serves what’s most likely its best taco. The mahi mahi taco at chef Anthony Lamas’ shrine to Latin cuisine is marinated and grilled before being topped with a cumin-lime aioli, cabbage, and a cilantro-flecked pico de gallo and placed atop two frilled corn tortillas. You might as well order two when you sit down, because you’re not going to want to stop eating these.
38) Tacodeli, Austin: El Conquistador
With three locations and two more coming soon, an Austin without Tacodeli, which is only open until 3 p.m., just wouldn’t be the same. Their made-from-scratch sauces are works of art, and their most popular taco, El Conquistador, is a perfect showcase for their chile pasilla sauce. Mixed in with shredded, slow-roasted pork shoulder topped with avocado, cilantro, and onion, and wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla, you’ll be dreaming about this taco long after having first discovered it.
37) Empellón Taqueria, New York City: Beer-Braised Pork Tongue
Chef Alex Stupak elevated the taco to new, super-gourmet heights when he opened Empellón in 2011, and Mexican cuisine in New York hasn’t been the same since. His fine dining-inspired creations keep the restaurant packed from open to close, and his tacos are unlike any you’ve ever had. Take the beer-braised pork tongue, for example, which you don’t exactly see every day. It’s chopped and topped with chorizo, potatoes, and a spicy chile de árbol salsa. You may think you’re not a fan of tongue, but that’s only because you haven’t tried Stupak’s.
36) El Rey Del Taco, Atlanta: Cabeza
Ethnic eats abound on the Buford Highway, and this 24-hour Mexican diner doesn’t disappoint. Made-to-order tortillas come filled with exotic options like tongue, tripe, and pork stomach, but don’t be afraid of the cabeza, or beef cheek, which is meltingly tender. Shredded and topped with some cilantro and onion (and roasted onions if you ask for them), these things are groan-inducingly good.
35) Tacolicious, San Francisco: Bistec Adobado
This San Francisco gem has three locations, and its success lies in an eye toward authenticity and using only the freshest ingredients. Their bistec adobado is a work of art: Flank steak gets a heady three-chile adobo marinade before being grilled to medium-rare and piled onto a fresh tortilla with a handful of pickled onions. A taco this good should cost far more than $3.95.
34) Guisados, Los Angeles: Cochinita Pibil Taco
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), 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, theand then 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.
33) Joe's Bakery, Austin, Texas: Carne Guisada Taco
Joe’s Bakery was established in 1962, and has been a destination for Tex-Mex breakfast and lunch ever since (not dinner, since it closes at 3). 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.
32) Taco Taco Café, San Antonio: Puffy Taco with Picadillo
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.
31) Pinche Taquería, Denver: Pork Belly “Agridulce”
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 “‘Aagridulce”’ 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.
30) Bob's Taco Station, Rosenberg, Texas: Barbacoa Taco
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 while 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 the 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.
29) El Parasol, Santa Fe, N.M.: Shredded Beef Taco
Since 1958, El Parasol has been serving traditional Mexican classics as well as no-frills American fare like burgers, hot dogs, and chili 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.
28) Dora's Deli, Walla Walla, Wash.: Vegetable Taco
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 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. 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.
27) Papalote Taco House, Austin, Texas: Cecina Taco
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.
26) Supermercado Chicago, Atlanta: Carne Asada Taco
The area just outside Atlanta, especially near Buford Highway, is 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: fflavorful, 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.
25) El Charrito, Riverside, Conn.: Carnitas Taco
Yelp/ Colin P
This community in the famously posh town of 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.
24) Ray's Drive Inn, San Antonio: Carne Guisada Puffy Taco
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.
23) Taquería Tehuitzingo, New York City: Carnitas Taco
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. A recent renovation has expanded the dining area slightly, as it now offers 13 seats.
22) Hugo's Tacos, Los Angeles: Carnitas Taco
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.
21) Taquería Arandas, Austin, Texas: Al Pastor Taco
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, and 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.
20) La Condesa, Austin, Texas: Arábicos Tacos
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.
19) Mary and Tito's Café, Albuquerque, N.M.: Carne Adovada Taco
Foursquare/ Michael S
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.
18) Matt's Famous El Rancho, Austin, Texas: Al Carbón Taco
Yelp/ Lisa R
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.
17) Tacomiendo, Los Angeles: Potato Taco
Yelp/ Michael S
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 memorable.
16) Frontera Grill, Chicago: Arabes Taco
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.
15) Big Star, Chicago: Al Pastor Taco
Wicker Park’s Big Star, from Chicago superstar chef Paul Kahan (of Publican fame) and chef de cuisine Cary Taylor, combines Mexican street food with a honky-tonk atmosphere, and the results are phenomenal. The menu is small but brilliant: six tacos (plus a the corn chip-based "walking taco"), 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 off 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.
14) Henry’s Puffy Tacos & Cantina, San Antonio
Henry’s may not be able to claim authorship of the term “puffy” tacos, but it does claim to be the “home of the original “‘Puffy Tacos”’ in San Antonio since 1978.” Whether they invented the genre and the name (Ray’s Drive Inn claims that honor) or not, Henry’s is an iconic spot for San Antonio’s signature dish (one that has since spread significantly beyond San Antone to Dallas and Austin). Henry (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.
13) Mi Tierra, San Antonio: Carnitas Michoacán Taco
Locals and visitors alike fill this big, boisterous, always 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 Michoacán, perfectly fried pieces of pork marinated in orange juice and spices, and presented with guacamole, pico de gallo, and beans.
12) La Paz, Maxwell Street Market, Chicago:
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 Sundays 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.
11) Tortilleria Nixtamal, Queens, N.Y.: Carnitas Taco
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.
10) Birrieria Zaragoza, Chicago: Birria Tatemada 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?
9) Chico's Tacos, El Paso, Texas: Chico's Taco
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, 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.
8) La Super-Rica, Santa Barbara, Calif.: Adobado Taco
The fresh flavors and simple but perfect presentations at this casual, counter-service Santa Barbara landmark draw long lines on a daily basis (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.
7) Tito's Tacos, Culver City, Calif.: Tito's Taco with Cheese
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, and the julienned iceberg is crisp and cool. It’s nothing short of hard-shell taco perfection.
6) Mexicali Taco & Co., Los Angeles: Carne Asada Taco
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, 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.
5) El Real Tex-Mex Café, Houston: Chicken Puffy Taco
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 and puffed-up shell gets a smear of refried beans, then the smoked chicken (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.
4) Torchy’s Tacos, Various Texas Locations: Trailer Park Taco
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 with cheese sauce. And who needs lettuce when cheese sauce is an option?
3) The Shed, Santa Fe, N.M.: Chicken with Green Chile Taco
Santa Fe is known for its green "Hatch" chiles, and their nearly 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).
2) Los Tacos No. 1, New York City: Adobada Taco
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 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. 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.)
1) La Taquería, San Francisco: Carnitas Taco
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 TaqueríaTaqueria 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 TaqueríaTaqueria, 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. To prepare the carnitas, chef/owner Miguel Jara slow-cooks chunks of pork shoulder in caulrdons of bubbling lard until tender, then roasts it until it’s crispy and tender. When tucked into a double layer of corn tortillas and topped with pinto beans, onions, and pico de gallo (and cheese and avocado if you choose), there’s no better taco in America.