America's Best Tacos (Slideshow)
75) Torres Taco Haven, San Antonio: Ralphie's Special
Owned and operated by the Jerry Torres family, the two locations of Torres Taco Haven in San Antonio are regarded as great places to get authentic Mexican food made by the locals. The Ralphie Special is a crowd favorite: it’s made up of three tacos filled with marinated chicken, topped with grated cabbage and sliced tomato and garnished with lemon.
74) FUEL Charleston, Charleston, S.C.: Braised Pork
FUEL Charleston offers Caribbean-influenced food with a menu that boasts house-ground burgers, jerk chicken, a bevy of salads, and — you guessed it — tacos. Their braised pork taco comes with green chile aïoli, green slaw, and sweet onion relish, and was one of Guy Fieri’s top picks when he visited FUEL on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
73) Rubi's At Maxwell Street Market, Chicago: Huitlacoche
The Eastern Europeans who dominated the area surrounding Maxwell Street in Chicago from the 1880s to the 1920s are credited for turning the original open-air market into the bustling hub it is today. The market has moved to a new location, but it remains a center for food and goods vendors to hawk their wares. Rubi's At Maxwell Street Market is ranked No. 4 on Foursquare for tacos in the South Loop, and their huitlacoche probably has a lot to do with that. Huitlacoche, also known as corn smut, is really a fungus, but we like to think of it as corn cheese, or perhaps even corn truffle. It’s a Mexican delicacy that tastes a bit like mushrooms, and Rubi’s gets major authenticity points for helping to make it a widely known and appreciated food in Chicago.
72) Border Grill, Las Vegas: Crispy Potato Rajas
From acclaimed chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken comes Border Grill, with three locations and a truck in Los Angeles, and two more outposts in Las Vegas — including one at Mandalay Bay. Their star taco is the fried crispy potato rajas, which holds Yukon Gold potatoes cooked with bell peppers, chiles, cream, cheese, and onions, all garnished with corn relish and guacamole.
71) Carnitas Uruapan, Chicago: Carnitas
Since Carnitas Uruapan opened in 1975, chef and owner “El Güero” Carbajal has undertaken the mission of introducing “the authentic carnitas of his hometown of Uruapan to Chicagoans.” We think he can count his mission accomplished, as his carnitas taco is one of the best in the business. The pork is slow-cooked for over two hours and then loaded into a flour tortilla. Feel free to garnish it with pico de gallo, although there’s really no need. Bonus tip: you can order a pound of the carnitas to take home, which you should absolutely do.
70) Taqueria del Sol, Atlanta: Smoked Brisket
Since opening in 2000, Taqueria del Sol has expanded to four locations in and around Atlanta, which is a clear indication that they know a thing or two about good Mexican food. Their smoked brisket taco is even further proof, as it’s loaded with shredded smoked beef and a just little pico de gallo, which allows the skill of the chef behind the grill to really show through.
69) Gonzalez, Dallas: Crispy Beef Tacos with Salsa Fresca
Serving Dallas since 1973, Gonzalez offers authentic Tex-Mex fare, and makes many of their products in-house, including the bread and tortillas. Go with the crispy beef tacos with salsa fresca — the subtle play between the fresh tomatoes and onions and the crispy taco shell is certain to please your taste buds.
68) Fat Fish, San Diego: Fish
Although the surf & turf taco combo of one shrimp taco and one grilled steak taco gets a lot of worthy buzz, surprise! The very best tacos at San Diego’s Fat Fish are, indeed, the namesake option. An order comes with two soft flour tortillas, each filled with crispy fried Icelandic cod, lettuce, and pico de gallo, all of which is sprinkled with grated cheese.
67) Loteria Grill, Los Angeles: Carne Deshebrada
With six locations around Los Angeles, Loteria Grill is a bit of an LA institution, and the one in Hollywood holds the reputation as the best of the lot. Many repeat customers will encourage you to order the taco platter, but if we had to pick just one variety, we’d go with the carne deshebrada: braised shredded beef, cilantro, guacamole, onions, and salsa roja.
66) Essex, Seattle: Fish
Taco & Tiki Tuesdays at Essex have Seattleites all in a tizzy every week as they clamor to get their hands on chef Ricardo Valdes’ excellent tacos. The lamb and chicken versions get a lot of praise, but everyone agrees that the fish tacos are not to be missed. The flour tortillas are made by hand, and the fresh fish is cooked in Valdes’ wood-burning oven. The result? Winner winner fish taco dinner.
65) Good 2 Go Taco, Dallas: "Paris Texas"
We think one of Good 2 Go’s "Paris Texas" tacos is a meal unto themselves, and just because they include eggs doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them any time of day (well, at least until 3 p.m., when Good 2 Go closes). First, spinach is layered over a tortilla that has been placed in a plastic basket with a sheet of tin foil, and in goes grilled hanger steak, scrambled eggs, and cubed and roasted potatoes, which is then all topped with grated cheese and a thick layer of charred tomato hollandaise (the Paris part).
64) Tacos Mex y Mariscos, Albuquerque: Al Pastor
You just can’t beat the value of Tacos Mex y Mariscos’ $.99 tacos, and it helps that they’re also very authentic. We encourage you to peruse the menu and pick out something a little out of the ordinary, like cabeza (head) or tripas (which are intestines, not tripe), but their al pastor taco is sure to please even the least adventurous eater. The spit-roasted pork and grilled pineapple is loaded into double-layered tortillas and sprinkled with cilantro and raw onions, which you can then take over to the salsa bar and garnish with traditional condiments like fiery tomato salsa, guacamole, and pico de gallo.
63) Pinches Tacos, Los Angeles: Carne Asada
As their website states, Los Angeles’ Pinches Tacos is “Real Mexican Food by Real Mexicans,” and their menu — the same across all five locations — is certainly authentic. Their carne asada taco is a favorite of devoted local customers —it’s dressed simply with cilantro, green sauce, and raw white onion.
62) Reyes Deli and Grocery, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carnitas
New York Times “Hungry City” columnist Ligaya Mishan caught a lot of flack for including an establishment that also sells Boar’s Head turkey wraps on her list of essential stops in the paper’s issue dedicated to tacos. Well, we’re standing with her, as Reyes Deli and Grocery serves a great carnitas taco, embellished with cilantro, onions, and salsa verde or roja, all garnished with the traditional slices of lime. The masses seem to agree with Mishan, too, as the eatery is rated #3 for carnitas in all of Brooklyn on Foursquare.
61) CaCao Mexicatessen, Los Angeles: Fish Taco de Ensenada
Neighbor to the south San Diego tends to be recognized as the mecca of fish tacos, but L.A. has some fine takes on this specialty of its own. One excellent example: the fish taco de Ensenada at CaCao Mexicatessen, which comprises a fresh, handmade corn tortilla; Alesmith Nut Brown beer-battered and fried red snapper; cabbage; lime aïoli; and pico de gallo. Those who are gluten-concerned or simply have an aversion to fried fish can ask them to pan-sear the snapper instead.
60) Bear Flag Fish Co., Newport Beach, Calif.: Basa
Folks line up daily at this Newport Beach gem for seafood served every way you can imagine: as sushi, in poke and ceviche, in salads, as burritos, grilled in sandwiches, in soups, and, of course, in tacos. Made with basa (similar to catfish) or another fish of your choice, coated with panko, grilled, and topped with pico de gallo, fresh cabbage, and a curried hot sauce they call Tommy sauce. Fish taco perfection.
59) 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. With the tortillas 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 chiles and spices in lard — isn’t for the spice-averse, but is addictively good.
58) Ramona's, Gardena, Calif.: Ground Beef and Potato
Since 1947, Ramona’s has been turning out some seriously high-quality Mexican food products, including some that are available in grocery stores. The company also has four restaurants around Southern California, 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 has served as an inspiration to the many beef hard-shell tacos that have come after it.
57) Básico, Charleston, S.C.: Buttermilk-Fried Chicken
Credited as a cornerstone of the up-and-coming Mixson District in Charleston, Básico is known for their quietly beautiful setting and food — it’s a great place for locals to decompress with first-rate margaritas and coconut mojitos. We suggest ordering their buttermilk-fried chicken tacos to accompany your cocktail. With cilantro, pickled jicama, spicy aïoli, and queso fresco, they’re a great example of American Southern-Mexican fusion done just right.
56) Habanero Mexican Café, Austin: Barbacoa
The Ibarra family first opened Habanero Mexican Café in Eastern Oregon, but eventually moved the operation to Austin, and for over 10 years the city’s residents have been counting themselves lucky that they did. Barbacoa, which Habanero executes particularly well, is steamed, shredded beef, and it's delicious. Get there before closing at 3 p.m., and make sure to ask them to add pico de gallo to your taco.
55) Los Cinco Puntos, Los Angeles: Carnitas
Meat is the focus at Los Cinco Puntos, who, according to their website, “strive to correct the Americanized image of ground-beef tacos by marinating, braising, and frying a trove of traditional Mexican meats.” We think they’re hitting their target, particularly with their carnitas tacos, which are topped with jalapeños and, for an additional 25 cents, with perfectly chunky guacamole.
54) Taquería Vallarta, San Francisco: Al Pastor
At this beloved Mission District taquería, more than a dozen meats stay warm on a circular iron comal. When you place your order it gets a quick crisping before heading into a warm tortilla (also heated on the comal), then topped with your choice of grilled or fresh onions, grilled jalapeños, fresh cilantro, and a splash of killer green salsa from a self-serve counter. Opt for the pineapple-flecked pork al pastor, which is crispy and melt-in-your-mouth.
53) Tacos Morelos, New York City: Chorizo
What began as a modest street cart in Queens turned into a fleet of trucks and a Lower East Side brick-and-mortar establishment in 2013. Tacos Morelos has been embraced by local Mexican food enthusiasts with open arms and grateful exclamations that the search for authentic Mexican food in New York has come to an end. They offer no less than a dozen possible fillings, but our vote goes to the chorizo taco: it’s served with cilantro, guacamole, and chopped onions.
52) 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 just opened in New York.
51) La Ranchera, Abilene, Texas: Lengua
Graciela Chavez and her crew make their own Mexican pastries and flour and corn tortillas, offer all the Mexican standards at low prices (the $1.35 breakfast burritos have a loyal local following), and serve classic menudo and caldo de res (beef soup) on weekends. No wonder La Ranchera has been called this West Texas town's best Mexican restaurant. Enhance some of those (corn) tortillas with nothing more than a generous portion of tender, perfectly seasoned beef tongue and some onions and cilantro — simplicity itself — with rice and beans on the side, and you're all set, with change for a tenner in your pocket.
50) Downtown Bakery, New York City: Chicken Mole
Serving the Lower East Side for twenty years, Downtown Bakery enjoys a cult following in the area. Devotees tout the bakery’s breakfast burritos as some of the city’s best (and they’re available all day long), along with their croissants and horchata, both of which are made in-house daily. They really know how to treat meat and poultry, and the best example of their skill is their chicken mole tacos: marinated chicken in mole poblano sauce, Jack cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, hot sauce, and sour cream, all rolled into a double-layered white corn tortilla.
49) La Lagartija Taquería, 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 it 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 City.
48) La Nueva Fresh & Hot Tortilleria, Dallas: Guisado Verde
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.
47) Taco Boy, Charleston, S.C.: Carnitas Norteño
This fun cantina on Folly Beach (with a second location downtown) serves some killer margaritas and guacamole, and, as the name implies, expertly prepared tacos. They’re available in 17 varieties, ranging from kimchi beef to al pastor to Southwest seared tuna, but it’s the carnitas norteño that are out-of-this-world delicious. They’re made with your choice of corn or flour tortilla, tender slow-roasted pork, poblano rajas, and ancho chile sauce.
46) Papalote Taco House, Austin: 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.
45) 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 three locations, 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, and 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.
44) 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 find. 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.
43) Mariscos El Pulpo, San Diego: Pulpo Ajillo
When the name of the restaurant is Spanish for “The Octopus Seafood,” you know that the octopus 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 with the octopus 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.
42) 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.
41) 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-inducing-ly good.
40) Seviche, Louisville, Ky.: Mahi Mahi
One of Louisville’s finest restaurants, Seviche also serves what’s most likely the city’s best taco. The mahi mahi in the taco at chef Anthony Lamas’ shrine to Latin cuisine is marinated and grilled before being topped with a cumin-lime aïoli, 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.
39) El Charrito, Riverside, Conn.: Carnitas
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 Terrón, 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.
38) Ines Bakery, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Tinga
Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood is a goldmine for top-notch, extremely authentic Mexican food (pro tip: Maria’s serves one of the very best Mexican brunches in the five boroughs), and Ines Bakery stands out as one of the very best. Last February, they received a flattering profile in the Village Voice, and earlier this year, they took the top spot on Eater’s list of 28 Killer Taco Spots in New York City. Order the chicken tinga: it comes topped with cilantro, onions, lettuce, and sides of green sauce and jalapeños.
37) Tacolicious, San Francisco: Bistec Adobado
This San Francisco gem has three locations, and its success lies in fresh ingredients and an eye toward authenticity. 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.
36) Joe's Bakery, Austin: Carne Guisada
Joe’s Bakery was established in 1962, and has been a destination for Tex-Mex breakfast and lunch 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.
35) New York Bakery, New York City: Fish
Every Tuesday and Friday, you can get the fish tacos as the daily special at New York Bakery in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood. The Korean couple who own the second-floor eatery speak fluent Spanish to customers who prefer to a hablar español, and offer a diverse menu of Mexican food stand-bys. The chicken quesadilla is a crowd pleaser, but the absolute favorite is the fish taco, with pieces of battered and fried fish, cilantro, onions, green sauce, and thin slices of avocado.
34) Taco Taco Cafe, 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 a small, unassuming building, they make all their tortillas from scratch, 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. The mixture is 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.
33) 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 “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.
32) Bob's Taco Station, Rosenberg, Texas: Barbacoa
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.
31) Supermercado Chicago, Atlanta: Carne Asada
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: the meat is 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 masa, and then finally into fresh tortillas to order.
30) Frontera Grill, Chicago: Arabes
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 make us return to his restaurants again and again. Like his tacos arabes, Arab tacos — a delicious combination 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.
29) Tehuitzingo, New York City: Suadero
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 Eric Ripert’s favorite, carnitas. Our panel of experts urges us to try the suadero, which is fried beef cut from between the belly and the leg, heaped into a corn tortilla and topped with cilantro, onions, and your choice of green or red salsa.
28) El Parasol, Santa Fe, N.M.: Shredded Beef
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 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 (New-Mex-Mex?) classic.
27) Big Star, Chicago: Al Pastor
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 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.
26) Hugo's Tacos, Los Angeles: Carnitas
The beloved Hugo’s has three locations in Los Angeles, and the backstory 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.
25) Dora's Deli, Walla Walla, Wash.: Vegetable Taco
Dora’s Deli has two locations in Walla Walla, 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.
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) Mary and Tito's Café, Albuquerque, N.M.: Carne Adovada
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.
22) La Condesa, Austin: Arábicos
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.
21) Matt's Famous El Rancho, Austin: Al Carbón
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.
20) Los Tacos No. 1, New York City: Adobada
With Los Tacos No. 1 setting up in the Chelsea Market, there’s only one thing to say to taco-crazy New Yorkers eager to assert that they now have one of America’s best tacos: You're right. Los Tacos No. 1 serves a taco so good that you could dare anyone to taste it blindfolded against their supposed favorite and make money betting on the outcome. Not that the proprietors here are unfamiliar with real tacos: Los Tacos is a collaboration between three close friends from Tijuana and Brawley, California. You really can’t go wrong with the adobo or pollo tacos here, but the winner is the red chile-marinated pork: —the adobada. Moist. Salted. Flavorful. Sweet but not cloying. Proper moisture and an 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.
19) ABC Cocina, New York City: Short Rib
ABC Cocina is a partnership between ABC Carpet & Home and Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten that highlights both the chef’s and the store’s commitment to conscious sourcing, and th which means that these are some really tasty high-end tacos. Available only on the dinner menu, these tacos consist of tortillas filled with glazed short rib, frizzled onion, and habanero relish. They’re so good that they’re the subject of about 10 percent of the tips about the eatery on Foursquare.
18) Tacomiendo, Los Angeles: Potato
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. If you don't mind carbo-loading, the unusual potato taco — potato chunks and cheese in a crispy shell — is memorable.
17) Chico's Tacos, El Paso: 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.
16) Kogi, Los Angeles: Korean Short-Rib
"Thanksgiving of 2008, Kogi BBQ had first rolled out as the little Korean-taco-truck-that-could, peddling $2 Korean barbecue tacos on the streets of LA. Little did they know that within… months, they would become an icon of LA street food. Kogi set off a flavor bomb that would shake up the foundations of the industry so that street food would never be looked at the same way." That’s from Kogi’s site. What’s the saying? It ain’t bragging if it’s true? Chef Roy Choi’s truck snagged the No. 1 spot on our most recent ranking of the 101 Best Food Trucks in America, but Choi also operates two stands, one within the Alibi Room and another at LAX. Our very favorite menu item is the short-rib taco. The meat is simmered in a mixture of apple and orange juices, carrots, chestnuts, garlic, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and yellow onions — among other ingredients — which all lends the ribs a complex flavor that will leaving you wanting more.
15) Henry’s Puffy Tacos & Cantina, San Antonio
Henry’s may not be able to verify their authorship of the term “puffy tacos,” but they do 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 the latter 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 and fried so that they puff out, creating a fun way to eat what otherwise is a relatively conventional Tex-Mex taco. The puffy tortilla shell is filled with the meat of your choice (spicy beef fajita is the most popular), then 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, and that’s exactly what happens here.
14) Tortilleria Nixtamal, Queens, N.Y.: Carnitas
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 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.
13) Mi Tierra, San Antonio: Carnitas Michoacán
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 fajita platters, enchiladas, 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 Super-Rica, Santa Barbara, Calif.: Tri-Tip
The fresh flavors and simple but perfect presentations at this casual, counter-service Santa Barbara landmark, known as Julia Child's favorite Mexican restaurant, continue to draw long lines of hungry customers. 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 tri-tip tacos: grilled tri-tip (from the bottom of the sirloin) — the defining beef cut on California's Central Coast — heaped atop made-from-scratch corn tortillas (you can watch them being patted by hand through a window into the kitchen). Feel free to add pico de gallo or other condiments from the oft-refreshed salsa bar.
11) Tacos La Vaquita, Durham, N.C.: Barbacoa
Since the turn of the millennium, Durham has experienced a boom in the size of its Hispanic community, and helping to give the city’s new residents a taste of home is Tacos La Vaquita. There’s a whole lot to love about their menu, but make sure to order the barbacoa taco. It’s composed of flavored beef with chopped onions, cilantro, radish, and green or red sauce, all rolled into a handmade corn tortilla.
10) Mexicali Taco & Co., Los Angeles: Chorizo
Mexicali Taco was founded by two friends, Esdras Ochoa and Javier Fregoso, in 2009, and quickly made a name for itself as one of the best taco stands in the already crowded Los Angeles Mexican food 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, so go for the Mexicali taco, which is a flour or corn tortilla stuffed with your choice of meat. We suggest opting for the chorizo. We promise you won’t be disappointed by this authentic Baja-style taco.
9) Birrieria Zaragoza, Chicago: Birria Tatemada
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?
8) 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.
7) Mariscos German, San Diego: Fish
Mariscos German’s version is the quintessential San Diego fried fish taco: generous in size and filled with grated cabbage and fresh, battered pieces of fish fried to golden brown perfection, topped with a creamy sauce. If you’re really hungry, order the Baha Trio — one fried fish taco, one marlin taco, and one shrimp taco — and wash it all down with a cheap can of beer or some coconut juice sipped right out of the coconut.
6) 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 chili con carne, nachos, and Frito pie (Tex-Mex and Texas food authority Robb Walsh is a partner here), 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; it’s a taco you’re not likely to forget any time soon.
5) 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 chiles, 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 remove the lettuce and replace it with cheese sauce. And who needs lettuce when cheese sauce is an option?
4) The Shed, Santa Fe, N.M.: Chicken with Green Chile
Santa Fe loves the green chiles from Hatch, down in the southern part of New Mexico, 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, the chiles are grown especially for the restaurant and 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).
3) La Paz, Maxwell Street Market, Chicago: "Quesadilla"
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 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 dollar-store-tablecloth-draped folding tables, leave you completely satisfied. You’ll have 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.
2) La Taqueria, 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 Taqueria has for tacos. That gives it, and its tacos (carnitas among them, quite arguably the best), quite a heavy reputation to live up to. La Taqueria, just one of the Mission’s many casual Mexican joints, does Mexican the way they should be done: fresh. As if the amazing rice-free burritos weren’t enough (you’d never notice its absence), there are the tacos. To prepare the carnitas, chef/owner Miguel Jara slow-cooks chunks of pork shoulder in cauldrons of bubbling lard until tender, then roasts it until it’s crispy. When it's 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).
1) Tacodeli, Austin: El Conquistador
Austin without Tacodeli, which has five locations around the city, 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 the house chile pasilla sauce. Mixed in with shredded, slow-roasted pork shoulder topped with avocado, cilantro, and onion, all wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla, it's the star of a taco you’ll be dreaming about. Go for lunch — all Tacodeli locations are only open until 3 p.m.