The Search for America's Best Tacos: Midwest Contenders

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And we're back with another edition of our March Madness-style tournament of tacos. We traveled thousands of miles to taquerias, taco trucks, corner stores, and carnicerias to find the 64 very best tacos in the country as part of a feature for Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine's March issue.

Yesterday we told you our picks from the South; before that it was the West coast. Today we're heading to the Midwest.

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 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 more fair for each region.

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.

  • The Tortillas (15 points): Just like a great sandwich must start with great bread, you can't make a good taco without a good tortilla. Soft corn tortillas should be warmed through completely with just a hint of spotty char on its surface. It should be soft and pliant, not stale or brittle. Flour tortillas should be warm and steamy, with just a hint of stretch and chew. Other types of shells, like deep fried corn shells or puffy taco shells will be judged on their own individual merits.
  • The Filling(s) (20 points): Whatever the choice of filling, it should be moist and flavorful, well salted, and either tender enough or chopped finely enough that you can bite into a taco without dragging half a cow out from between the folded tortilla. Obviously, the meat should taste fresh and relatively gristle-free. Fattiness is generally a good thing here. What we're reallly looking for is flavor.
  • The Toppings (10 points): Here the judgment well depend on the style. A good Mexican style taco needs nothing more than chopped onions and cilantro, a squeeze of lime, and an intense but not overpowering salsa. For other styles of tacos, we'll ask ourselves, do the toppings work well with the fillings? Is everything bright, fresh and flavorful?
  • Integrity (10 points): There's nothing worse than a taco that splits apart and falls onto your plate (or worse, your lap) halfway through. Are the tortillas robust enough to stand up to a juicy filling? Are the tortillas double stacked when necessary?
  • The TTE (Total Taco Experience, 20 points): This one is tough to define. It's about how the whole thing shakes down. Does the setting, the service, the food all come together to give you an experience that's more than the sum of its parts? Here's where our own discretion really comes into play. A great taco served in an airport lounge ain't going to taste as delicious as the exact same taco served on a paper plate on a beautiful day served out the side of a truck eaten at a highway-side picnic table. A perfect fish taco served on the ocean in San Diego is better than a perfect fish taco served in a cocktail bar in New York. This synergistic effect must be taken into account.

Favorite Tacos in the Midwest

We were happily surprised to discover that the Midwest has more than its fair share of amazing tacos. Large Mexican immigrant populations and a newfound appreciation of inexpensive-but-tasty fast food has been a positive boon for taco trucks and taquerias in urban centers like Detroit, Columbus, and Chicago.

Tacos al pastor and its close relative tacos arabes—both styles that feature vertical spit-roasted pork—as well as meats like goat and lamb are a common site, owing in large part to the Midwest and Mexico's large Lebanese immigrant population and the happy marriage between the two cuisines.

  • Taqueria Los Guachos: (Columbus, OH)
  • Los Potosinos: (Columbus, OH)
  • Los Chilangos: (Columbus, OH)
  • Cemitas Puebla: (Chicago, IL)
  • Birrieria Zaragoza: (Chicago, IL)
  • Frontera: (Chicago, IL)
  • Carnicerias Guanajuato: (Chicago, IL)
  • Big Star: (Chicago, IL)
  • La Lagartija: (Chicago, IL)
  • El Taco Riendo: (Minneapolis, MN)
  • El Rancho Tapatío: (Lexington, KY)
  • Panchitos: (Lexington, KY)
  • Restaurante La Mexicana: (Newport, KY)
  • La Mexicana Supermercado: (Detroit, MI)
  • Papa de Pollitos: (Detroit, MI)
  • Taqueria Guadalajara: (Madison, WI)

Which 4 Made it to the Sweet 16?

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Tacos Arabes from Cemitas Puebla (Chicago, IL): Odds are good that you're here for a cemita, one of their namesake sandwiches stuffed to the brim with avocado, smoky chipotle peppers, fresh Oaxacan cheese, and your choice of meaty filling (we recommend the milanesa). But the tacos arabes, a schwarma-like filling of chili-rubbed pork and onion slow-roasted on a vertical spit until wonderfully charred, sliced thin, then wrapped in a thick flour tortilla, is another big reason to come.

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Birria from Birrieria Zaragoza (Chicago, IL): The tortillas at Birrieria Zaragoza are special enough on their own: pressed by hand into wonderfully irregular shapes and served stacked up alongside an array of freshly prepared condiments, but its their eponymous filling that kicks these tacos into the best-of territory. Goat shank that's first steamed for up to five hours then marinated in an ancho-based red mole before being roasted until the fat renders and the meat crisps up on the exterior. You can order them by the individual taco (a great pit stop if you have a Midway layover), but the best way is to grab some friends and order a whole plate of the birria to fold into tortillas yourselves.

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Chorizo from La Mexicana Supermercado (Detroit, MI): Don't be turned off by their run-down outward appearance. Clean windows, proper signage, and working air-conditioning are all luxuries you won't miss once you taste the tacos served from the deli counter of this Mexican supermarket. Crumbled vinegary chorizo sausage gets charred on a hot griddle until just shy of burnt then gets over-stuffed into flaky puffy yellow corn tortillas from nearby Tortilleria el Milagro, the best packaged tortillas we've had anywhere.

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Al Pastor from Los Guachos (Columbus, OH): Served all night and into the wee hours of the morning in the parking lot of a Spanish night club, Los Guachos serves all the options of a typical taco truck—lengua, carne asada, carnitas—but the majority of the long line is there waiting for one thing: the spit-roasted al pastor taco. Strips of chile-marinated pork, almost bacon-like in consistency, are stacked in layers on a spit, then slow-roasted in front of a gas flame. The cooks stack fresh pineapple above the meat while it cooks, so the sweet juices drip down over the edges where they caramelize into crispy, sweet charred spots. The spitmaster slices the meat to order, catching the savory strips on a waiting warm corn tortilla. Diced onion and a sprinkle of cilantro seal the deal.

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

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