When you close your eyes and picture a perfect taco, what do you see? Is it the Ortega taco-night classic: 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’re proud to present our sixth annual ranking of 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. For our purposes, however, 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, along with burgers and hot dogs, 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.
What makes a great taco, exactly? The best ones tend to be simple, with clean, vibrant, and varied flavors, each component good enough to stand on its own. A perfect taco is balanced in flavor, and isn’t loaded down by superfluous add-ons. The tortilla (traditionally corn-based, but occasionally flour) should be super fresh and, ideally, handmade on the premises. The filling should be made with an eye for balance. The toppings, be they onions and cilantro or chipotle harissa, should brighten, heighten, and tie the whole taco together into a cohesive, delicious dish.
To assemble our ranking, we created a survey or more than 400 tacos from brick-and-mortar restaurants (not including carts, trucks, or breakfast tacos — those are for another day), which we then compiled into a survey and sent to our distinguished panel of taco experts — food and restaurant personalities who know a superior taco when they taste one. They voted, and we tallied the results. Here are America’s 75 best tacos.