New Haven: Who Has The Best Tacos on Long Wharf?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Every time I end up on the stretch if I-95 by the Long Wharf in New Haven on my way to or from Boston and New York, I say three things to myself:

  1. Why the heck didn't I take the Wilbur Cross Parkway instead?
  2. Does the Flag Man really sell enough flags to make a living, or is it a front for counterfeit immigration papers?
  3. Maybe this time I'll finally stop and try some of those tacos.

See, I've been driving past this spot for near-on three decades now, slowly watching the collection of food trucks grow and grow until it finally reached full-on convoy size. While you'll find a Puerto Rican truck serving some pretty decent lechon and a few trucks specializing in tortas and pinchos, most of the trucks here are hardcore Mexican taco trucks.

On our recent road trip up to New Haven in the Serious Eats Edge (on loan from Ford to make our road-trippin' easier), we decided to order a couple tacos from every single truck so we could lead you, Serious Eaters, along the path of righteousness should you ever find yourself in the area.

Disclaimer: the mix of trucks varies day to day and there are more trucks there on Saturdays and Sundays that we missed out on, so if your favorite truck is missing here, speak up in the comments!

At each truck, we ordered one taco de lengua (braised beef tongue), and one taco de cabeza (beef head), when available. If not, we asked the Taco Man for his recommendation and went with that.

Truck 1: Mexican Food

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Price: $1.50 each

It's got the most generic of names, but their tacos were pretty outstanding. Both meats were meltingly tender, plenty fatty, and well seasoned. I could have used some better charring on the tortillas, but they came with two. Their salsa were also good. A thin avocado and cilantro-based sauce, as well as a fiery red sauce with a bright, clean flavor. Chopped onions and cilantro were very fresh as well.

Grade: A-

Truck 2: Ixtapa (newer looking one)

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Price: $1.50 each

The first of the two trucks named Ixtapa serves a respectable taco. The meat is cooked well, tender with a few crisp bits and plenty of saltiness, though like Mexican Food, the tortillas were undercooked and slightly greasy. The sauce here is not quite as spicy and has a strange smoky quality to it with the aroma of dried spices like cumin. The overall impression was more Southwestern in flavor than truly Mexican.

Still, mighty tasty bites for $1.50.

Grade: B

Truck 3: Ixtapa (rundown-looking one)

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Price: $1.50 each

The truck parked next to Ixtapa is called... Ixtapa. I asked the amigos what was up with the two trucks with the same name. Apparently they're not just the same name, but they're also owned by the same person. How odd that one business owner would send two trucks to the exact same spot to compete with each other. It's not like there was overflowing demand or even any lines at all. I asked if they use different recipes and was told "his recipe is how he cooks it, my recipe is how I cook it."

And indeed, the tacos are pretty significantly different. The more rundown second Ixtapas tacos are better, with a bright, fresh, clean tasting sauce and tender but-not grisly meat

Grade: B+

Truck 4: Santa Apolonia

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Price: $1.00 each

Woohoo! I said to myself. $1 tacos!

Turns out you get what you pay for. The face meat here was tender, but so extraordinarily full of fat, gristle, and foul-tasting glands that I could barely get the first bite down. Add to that tired, brown chopped cilantro (including some twig-thickness stems), unevenly chopped onions, a couple squeeze bottles of sauce that look like they haven't been cleaned out since the family picnic in 1984, all served up on a single tortilla that's half soft and half totally stale, and it sums up to a pretty poor taco experience.

This one went in the bin after a few bites.

Grade: D+

Truck 5: Tacos El Carril

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Price: $1.00 each

Located on the other side of the road, Tacos El Carril features more griddled meats than the steamed/braised meats at the other trucks. We're talking things like carne asada, chicken, pork, and chorizo. At just a buck again, this was the last chance for redemption.

They don't carry tongue or head, so I went with chorizo and al pastor. Things didn't look all too promising when I realized the chorizo was a pre-cooked sausage link that they were chopping up and reheating, while the al pastor was rough chunks of pork meat with a red marinade rather than the layers of slow-roasted pork on a rotisserie in a proper el pastor taco.

Needless to say, the single stale-shell creations weren't impressive. Edible, but not pleasurable.

Grade: C

So to answer the question of whether the trucks are worth stopping at, the answer is yes, most definitely. Just be careful where you shop.

The Taco Trucks at Long Whart

Long Wharf, off of I-95 in New Haven, CT (map)

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