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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.

  • 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 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.

  • Las Cuatro Milpas: (San Diego, CA)
  • Marisco's German Taco Truck: (San Diego, CA)
  • Aqui es Texcoco: (Chula Vista, CA)
  • Cinco Puntos: (Los Angeles, CA)
  • Guisados: (Los Angeles, CA) / @guisados
  • Mariscos Jalisco: Facebook page
  • Bear Flag Fish Co.: (Newport Beach, CA) / newport.bearflagfishco.com
  • La Super-Rica Taqueria: (Santa Barbara, CA)
  • Los Robles Cafe: (Paso Robles, CA)
  • Tacos Garcia: (Yountville, CA)
  • El Gallo Giro Truck: (San Francisco, CA)
  • Tacos Vallarta: (Palmdale/Modesto/Arleta, CA)
  • Taqueria Uruapan Taco Truck: (Hayward, CA) / tacosuruapan.net
  • Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon's: (Portland, OR)
  • Tacos Palomino: (Pasco, WA)
  • Dora's Deli at the Walla Walla Worm Ranch: (Walla Walla, WA)

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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