To even the playing field, I decided to test the trucks based on two traditional taco fillings: carnitas and barbacoa.
A quick web search of "Nashville" and "taco trucks" will get you two types of results.
First you'll find a few postings, mostly from late 2005, about the city's purported plans to ban taco trucks due to "health concerns," which apparently never went through (gracias a Dios). But most of what you'll find being written about taco trucks in Nashville today focuses exclusively on Mas Tacos, a gourmet mobile trailer of the type that's got the country all aTwitter these days.
Mas Tacos' blue-and-yellow Winnebago has been serving tacos like "summer style quinoa" and "cast-iron chicken" since late 2008 and tweeting their location since March 2009, much to the delight of local foodies and non-foodies alike. Unfortunately, the myopic devotion that they've engendered—on display via Yelp and other online forums—has blinded local eaters to the plethora of cheaper, more authentic, and in my opinion tastier, taco trucks nearby.
Nashville might lack a reputation for culinary diversity, but these days any American city with a sizable immigrant community (and that's just about all of them) is bound to have authentic international cuisines lurking in the shadows. In Nashville, those shadows concentrate along two major avenues.
Gallatin Pike stretches from near East Nashville all the way north to Hendersonville. While south of downtown, Nolensville Pike extends for over 25 miles, though most of the trucks I found were within ten minutes of downtown—a drive suitable for even the shortest lunch break.
To even the playing field, I decided to test the trucks based on two types of traditional tacos: carnitas (braised, roasted pork) and barbacoa (made from slow-cooked cow's head). Most of the trucks use the same basic formula: your choice of meat served in corn tortillas, accompanied by grilled onions, sliced radish, pickled carrots, cilantro, lime, and occasionally raw onion as well. But as always, the same ingredients can produce vastly different creations, from the divine to the barely edible.
Like that first hit that sends you down the road of addiction, the tacos at El Paisa started me off on a journey that would never yield anything quite as good. Simply stated, their tacos are some of the best I've ever tasted, on par with anything in Texas or California.
The carnitas and barbacoa were both perfect, served with hot grilled onions on small, disc-like tortillas that were fried almost to a crisp. After two bites I knew I had to order more (and return two more times during my stay). To top it all off, the slices of impeccably fresh radish were a much-needed palate cleanser to get me back to neutral for the next stop on the tour.
Unfortunately that stop was Mexican and Caribbean Fast Foods where the vague, uninspired name should have been an adequate warning. This truck is what every conservative eater fears when they think of taco trucks: indistinguishable meats heaped on limp, chalky tortillas, served by a pushy, frustrated cook. I did my duty and tested their tacos, only to ditch them midway and hurry down the road to Diana's Tacos.
This is where I found a saucier version of barbacoa, something closer to marinated and shredded beef than traditional cabeza, though still pretty tasty. Their carnitas, however, was stuck somewhere between shredded pork and marinated pastor. When I asked the chef about it, he said carnitas and pastor were the same. (Not a good sign.)
On the other side of town, along Nolensville Pike, I was pleased to find trucks that tended to be much more consistent in quality—all of them are worth a stop. First up was Taqueria Express, which had fiery red and green salsas to complement their savory meats. I'd say it was one of the better ones in town if I hadn't happened upon their far better sister, Taqueria Express #2, in nearby Antioch the next day.
If you have the time, it's worth the extra ten minutes to try Taqueria Express #2 (and then get Vietnamese food at King Market across the street... but that's another story).
Back on Nolensville I parked at Taqueria Belen, where the tacos taste better than you would expect from their $1 price tag. Though the salsa was a bit weak, the meats were subtle and delicious topped with raw onion and cilantro.
But the best tacos I found on Nolensville were at my next stop, Taqueria El Recodo, where the carnitas were as crispy as potato chips and the barbacoa so pillowy, you might mistake it for fondue. Though the tortillas were merely passable and the radishes not so fresh, the textured meats were enough to make me order another round.
My last stop was a bit of a dud, which isn't surprising given that it didn't seem to have a name besides "Grand Opening!" (According to the posted permit, it's called Taqueria Internacional.) By this time in the tour I had started to wear out and the radishes tasted better than either of the tacos. The meats lacked any fuerza, the onions were marinated and cold, and the sauce was tangy without being spicy.
But no matter, I still had time to pop over to Las Paletas on 12th Avenue for the city's favorite Mexico-inspired dessert: a gourmet homemade popsicle. Their pineapple-strawberry paleta might be the best prescription I've found yet for a raging taco hangover.
The Taco Truck Crawl
Gallatin Pike N at Elmore Avenue (map) Tacos = $1.25
Mexican and Caribbean Fast Foods
Gallatin Pike N at Wiley Street (map) Tacos = $1
Gallatin Pike S at Hickory Street (map) Tacos = $1.50
Nolesville Pike at Peachtree Street (map) Tacos = $1.25
Taqueria El Belen #1
Nolesville Pike at Central Avenue (map) Tacos = $1
Taqueria El Recodo
Nolesville Pike at Harrison Street (map) Tacos = $1.25
Nolesville Pike at Welch Road (map) Tacos = $1
Taqueria Express #2
Antioch Pike at Cherokee Place, Antioch TN (map) Tacos = $1.25
2907 12th Avenue South, Nashville TN 37212 (map) Paletas = $2.50