USA TODAY - When you close your eyes and picture a perfect taco, what do you see? Is it the Ortega taco-night special: a hard-shell taco, spiced ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce, and tomato? Or is it something from your favorite taco stand: two small corn tortillas, shredded pork, onions, and cilantro? Or maybe something in between? There are plenty of tacos out there, from fried fish to pork with pineapple, and from roasted goat to cow's tongue, and The Daily Meal set out to find America's best.
First, let's define what exactly a taco is. By the broadest definitions, it's a handheld, folded, unleavened flatbread encasing something edible. And while some companies might be able to get away with calling the Choco Taco or Taco Bell's new waffle taco a taco, for our purposes we're defining a taco as meat or vegetables placed onto a warmed tortilla, with the express purpose of folding it and eating it with one hand. And man, there are some amazing tacos out there.
One great thing about a taco is that it's one of the most democratic foods known to man. You'll find them at the most homespun, rustic roadside shacks; you'll find them on the menu at some of the country's most high-end Mexican restaurants. One reason they're so popular is because they're so inexpensive, usually selling for just a couple of bucks. The low price and smallish size also makes it easy to become a self-styled taco expert, as seeking out great tacos and eating as many different varieties as possible is as honorable a pastime as any. On our quest for the country's best, we tracked down not only authentic Mexican offerings but also Tex-Mex tacos and a few that are decidedly not authentically Mexican but delicious nonetheless.
Even though tacos trace their roots to Mexico, they're quickly becoming more and more of an American staple. The 2012 census found that nearly 17% of the U.S. population is now Hispanic or Latino, up more than 3% from 2002. This increasing cultural influence has certainly made its way into the food we eat, with results that are decidedly positive. And from Baja-style tacos (grilled or fried fish typically topped with slaw, pico de gallo, and sour cream-based sauce) to chopped meat from a cow's head (cabeza), the possibilities really are limitless.
Tacos are a food that inspires fierce loyalty. Ask someone in Texas (Austin, in particular) where the country's best tacos are and they'll tell you've found it. But head to Los Angeles and you'll meet people convinced that there's nothing better than a perfectly fried fish taco. And you know what? They'll both be right. New Yorkers have complained for years that it's tough to find a great taco in their city, but in recent years several have been introduced that rival the best you'll find in Mexico. And up in Chicago, a town that has never exactly been a taco paradise, the Maxwell Street Market is becoming a world-class taco destination.
In order to assemble our ranking of America's best tacos, we asked more than 200 of the nation's leading food writers and taco authorities to send over a list of their absolute favorite tacos in the country. Not taquerías, mind you, but individual tacos, what they believe to be the absolute finest offering from their favorite taco shops. We asked them to include only brick-and-mortar taquerías as opposed to trucks, carts, and the like (that's a ranking for another day). We also didn't include breakfast tacos, because most would agree that those are an entirely different food altogether. We rounded out their submissions with tacos mentioned in best-of lists both in print and online, as well as our personal favorites, then assembled a list of more than 150 tacos, which we divided by region: East Coast, Midwest, Texas, Southwest, and West Coast. We then invited our panel of experts to vote for their favorites. At the end of the day, we were left with the 35 best tacos in America.
Some of the tacos that made the cut are certainly surprising. In posh Riverside, Conn., for example, an unassuming carnitas taco has won over legions of fans, and in Denver a slab of sweet and sour braised pork belly with candied garlic is quickly becoming one of the city's must-eats. At the same time, several popular favorites made it into the survey but not the final list, like New York's Empellón, Austin's popular Tacodeli, and Washington, D.C.'s Oyamel. We'll also be the first to admit that there are some stellar tacos out there that didn't cross our radar, so feel free to let us know if you think there's one that we missed.
So what makes a taco great, exactly? We polled our experts and most replied with similar qualifications: Great tacos are simple, with clean, vibrant, and varied flavors, with each component able to stand on its own. A perfect taco is balanced in flavor, and not loaded down by extraneous add-ons. The tortilla should be super-fresh and ideally handmade; the filling doesn't have to be either simple or fancy, just made with care and an eye for balance and moisture level; and the topping, be it onions and cilantro or chipotle harissa, should brighten, heighten, and tie the whole taco together.
Thanks to a growing Latino population and technological advances like, say, the Internet, not only are there more great tacos out there than ever before, but it's becoming easier and easier to track down those tacos. And a truly great taco is nothing short of a work of art.
1. Ricky's Fish Tacos
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 amidst rumors that local businesses (Including a taco spot) had repeatedly called the health department on him. But Ricky turned up, this time at 1100 N. Main in Chinatown, where you can find him on weekends from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm, or until he runs out (check his Twitter feed). Why are the tacos 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 better too.
2. 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 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.
3. 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 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.)
4. 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; the julienned iceberg is crisp and cool. It's nothing short of hard-shell taco perfection.
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 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?
6. 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).
7. 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 (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.
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 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.
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 (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.
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?
11. 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, 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.
12. 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.
13. 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 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.
14. Mi Tierra, San Antonio: Carnitas Michoacan Taco
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.
15. 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 guac. 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.
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