There are certain neighborhoods in Boston that are known for great Mexican food, but Waltham isn't one of them. When I think of Waltham, I think of Brandeis, Gordon's Liquors, watches, and some good Indian grocers on Moody Street. I'd never thought of it as a taco destination, until recently.
A few of my coworkers had been buzzing about the seriously good tacos at Taqueria El Amigo, so I went to see for myself after one of my regular weekend shopping runs at Russo's. (Conveniently—dangerously—the two are less than a mile from one another.) They'd raved about the al pastor, but I'd done a little pre-lunch Yelp- and Chowhound-surfing and read about the rich and silky cabeza (for those of us who studied Latin instead of Spanish, that's "head"—or in this case, beef cheek meat). There was a third option I wanted, too: carnitas, and who's foolish enough to not order tender-crispy shreds of pork when they're available? Not me.
Fortunately, I didn't have to choose. The Tacos Especiales plate is four tacos long, and you can mix and match as you like for less than six bucks. (Tacos are also available a la carte for $2 each.) I went with those three options, doubling up on the cabeza out of curiosity (cheek meat tacos are hard to come by around here; these would be my first) and great expectations.
The hype was well deserved. All three meats were so spoon-tender, the braised-then-browned bits and shreds practically melting into the just-steamed corn tortillas (not homemade, but so soft and puffy that they tasted remarkably fresh). Al pastor was pineapple-less, the fine pork butt cubes coated in a smoky-sweet guajillo chile-based sauce that lent the meat a little fruit and smoke. Carnitas, meanwhile, was perfectly shreddy and crisp—almost wispy at the edges—and offered unadulterated porky goodness. As for the beef cheeks, they were chopped fine, gamy in a good way, and unctuous to a near-fault; even the visible bits of fat ate nicely after braising for so long.
The universal garnish—chopped raw onion, cilantro (including the crunchy stems), half-moons of creamy avocado, and a squeeze of lime—made a nice contrast to all that rich meat. To give the package an extra boost, I asked for some of the housemade hot sauce (a little bitter on its own, but great on the tacos), spooned on some of the spicy salsa that comes gratis with chips, and gulped down a fruit shake ($3). The mixto looks—and, oddly, tastes—a bit like coffee milk, but is full up on strawberries, papayas, and bananas, and makes an ideal refresher.
Taqueria El Amigo
196 Willow Street, Waltham, MA 02453 (map)
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.