The Search for America's Best Tacos: Southern Contenders
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 about the West coast picks; today we're heading to the South.
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 more fair for each region. For example, we included Arizona and New Mexico in the South here, as there were just too many great taquerias in the West to lump them all together.
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 South
The south was the only region where we found flour tortillas to be the predominant wrapper of choice. Unlike lean corn tortillas made with a soft, uniform corn dough, flour tortillas are made with a touch of lard, adding a bit of meaty flavor and flakiness. In parts of Texas (hello Austin!), breakfast tacos featuring egg, cheese, potatoes, or chorizo were nearly ubiquitous, not that we're complaining.
- El Parasol: (Santa Fe, NM)
- The Shed: (Santa Fe, NM)
- Taqueria del Sol: (Atlanta, GA)
- Taqueria El Recodo Truck: (Nashville, TN)
- El Borrego de Oro: (Austin, TX)
- Papalote: (Austin, TX)
- Tacos Veracruz: (Austin, TX)
- Taqueria La Flor: (Austin, TX)
- El Guero: (Dallas, TX)
- El Si Hay: (Dallas, TX)
- Laredo Taqueria: (Houston, TX)
- Taqueria del Sol: (Houston, TX)
- Gerardo's Taqueria: (Houston, TX)
- El Real: (Houston, TX)
- Mi Tierra: (San Antonio, TX)
- Taco Taco: (San Antonio, TX)
Which 4 Made it to the Sweet 16?
Migas from Tacos Veracruz: Tender, thick homemade corn tortillas are a worthy base for any of their tacos, but the migas are what to order here. Bits of crunched up fried corn tortilla are soaked in a jalapeño-laced avocado salsa until just barely softened then tossed with still-soft lightly scrambled, melted Jack-style cheese, and chopped tomato. Flavored crunchy tortilla wrapped in soft tortilla makes for a satisfyingly hearty breakfast.
1704 East Cesar Chavez, Austin TX 78702 (map) 512-963-1428
Barbacoa from Gerardo's Drive-in Grocery: Go on a Saturday or Sunday, when the house specialty is available--the pigs head taco, also known as barbacoa. The meat is cooked in a spicy chile broth in enormous metal vats out back, resulting in intensely meaty, concentrated flavor. It's scooped into a flaky flour tortilla hot from the griddle (or comal), with a hefty squeeze of lime, smattering of cilantro and onion and a drizzle of mouth-searing red jalapeño salsa to cut the richness.
609 Patton Street Houston, TX 77009 (map); 713-699-0820
Suadero from El Guero: This tiny roadside stand serves nothing but tacos, and their entire roster of meats is printed in large colorful letters on their bright yellow outer wall. Steak, al pastor, and lengua are all fantastic, but the best is their suadero--thin slices of fine-grained, well-marbled meat cut from the brisket griddled until crisp. It comes served it on a double-stacks of paper-thin corn tortillas that barely contain the beefy juices destined to trickle down your throat (or your shirt, if you're not careful).
4500 Bryan Street Dallas, TX 75204 (map); 214-823-1260
Beef Fajita from Tacos La Flor: You'll find the corniest, tenderest, best-charred corn tortillas in Austin at this cheery blue truck. Lightly chewy with a miraculously crisp rim that reminds us of a tiny pizza crust, they're best topped with the fajita-style beef, tiny strips of well-seasoned skirt steak crisped up on a charcoal grill. Don't expect the grilled onions or peppers you'd find in Americanized versions of the dish. Here, it's all about the beef.
4901 South 1st Street, Austin TX 78745 (map); 512-417-4214
Stay tuned for more Taco Madness the rest of this week!