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The Search for America's Best Tacos: West Coast Contenders

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Every year in March, basketball madness sweeps the U.S. as the NCAA championship tournament unfolds. And once again this year, we at Serious Eats helped put together Every Day with Rachael Ray's annual food bracket.

Last year it was hot dogs. The year before that, pizza. This year, the magazine asked us to focus on tacos so the editors here combed the country in search of our favorites.

Traveling all over this great nation of ours to taquerias, taco trucks, carnicerias, and anywhere else serving up a serious taco, we narrowed down the list to 64 contenders across the country. After much discussion, quite a few intense roadtrips, and a little indigestion, we arrived at our Final Four picks. We'll reveal those on Friday and in the meantime, each day this week, we'll share all of our regional picks.

The Bracket Methodology

The national list includes 64 contenders divided by region: West, South, Midwest, and East. Within each region we picked our top 16 taco contenders (ta-contenders?) which we then narrowed down to four winners from each region to enter the Sweet 16.

The regions were split up into mostly obvious clusters of states, though some gerrymandering needed to occur to make sure the division of taco awesomeness was a little more fair for each region. For example, we included Arizona and New Mexico in the South, as there were just too many great taquerias in the West to lump them together. Hey, it's not easy creating a March Madness-style bracket for all the tacos in this darn country!

Taco Criteria

For the purposes of this search, we didn't discriminate based on style of taco. A $9 taco from a famous chef competed side-by-side with a $1 taco from a roadside truck. That said, there are a few things every taco should have in common, and those are the criteria by which we judged.

Favorite Tacos in the West

West coast tacos show a staggering amount of variety. Though corn tortillas reign supreme, fillings range from traditional grilled and braised meats, to the deep-fried fish tacos of the Southern California coast, to the steamed lamb found in border towns just north of Mexico.

There are more tacos in the West than anywhere else in the country—whittling down our list from several dozen to this 16, and then the four that'd advance to the Sweet 16 overall, was one of the most difficult tasks we've faced in our many collective years as Serious Eaters. Truth be told, you'd be hard pressed not to find a good taco while in California. That said, after a rigorous amount of eating (er, overeating) we managed to create this list.

Which 4 Made it to the Sweet 16?

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Carnitas from Cinco Puntos: The carnitas from this super cocina market (they also sell piƱatas and dried chiles from giant bins) are juicy with crisp edges and a mouthful of porky flavor. They pile the meats on high but each thick, still warm and puffy tortilla—made lovingly by one of the ladies in the back—impressively stays intact. Make sure to get plenty of the bright nopales (cactus) on top to cut through the rich, fatty meat.

3300 E Cesar E Chavez Ave, Los Angeles CA 90063 (map); 323-261-4084

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Fried Camarones from Mariscos Jalisco Truck: The deep-fried crunchy pockets that come out of this brightly painted truck are a two-handed affair. After the initial crunch from the miraculously ungreasy shell, the whole thing gives way to a moist-crunchy-rich mass of fried shrimp topped with creamy slices of avocado and a bright, tomato-based salsa.

3040 E Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90023 (map); 323-528-6701

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Huitlacoche from Aqui es Texcoco: Located in a strip mall about halfway from San Diego to Tijuana, locals come for the stewed lamb's head tacos and broth, but you'd be remiss to pass up on the huitlacoche. The black, runny, moldy-looking corn fungus may not have much by way of looks, but there's a reason Mario Batali dubbed huitlacoche "Mexican truffles." Earthy, nutty, and deeply savory, it's a traditional Mexican treat rarely seen stateside and goes perfectly inside soft-in-the-middle, crispy-on-the-edges corn tortillas.

1043 Broadway # 108 Chula Vista, CA 91911 (map); 619-427-4045

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Carnitas from Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon's: There's nothing particularly fancy or unique about the carnitas sold at the back of this slightly grimy, run-down grocery store. They're served on paper plates on fold-out picnic tables decorated with plastic flowers and come with a bare minimum of toppings: diced onions and cilantro, perhaps a splash of lime juice and a spoonful of salsa roja. What makes them special? They're some of the juiciest-on-the-inside, crispest-on-the-outside, outright porkiest carnitas we've had anywhere, all served on light and flaky freshly made corn tortillas.

16223 Northeast Glisan Street, Portland, OR (map); 503-255-4356

Stay tuned for more Taco Madness the rest of this week!

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