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.
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.
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 on the East Coast
We're not going to lie: as any West Coast or Southwestern transplant can tell you, finding great tacos on the East Coast is no easy task, but it's not impossible. You just have to be willing to go a bit off the beaten path. Head to neighborhoods with large Mexican immigrant populations and the trucks hanging out on street corners. The east coast is where we also found some more of the high-end chefs making everything from the ultra-traditional to the far more rarefied taco.
- Empellón: (Manhattan, NY)
- Mexican Food Truck at Long Wharf: (New Haven, CT)
- El Potro: (Boston, MA)
- Rosticeria Cancun: (Boston, MA)
- Corazon del Mar: (Nantucket, MA)
- Taco Bar: (Gaithersburg, MD)
- Tres Reyes: (Hyattsville, MD)
- Tortilleria Sinaloa: (Baltimore, MD)
- El Aguilla: (East Harlem, NY)
- Las Delicias Mexicana: (East Harlem, NY)
- La Pena:(Kennett Square, PA)
- Taqueria el Taconazo:(Central Falls, RI)
- La Verdad:(Boston, MA)
- La Vaquita:(Durham, NC)
- Tacos Matamaros:(Brooklyn, NY)
- Don Nacho:(Pawtucket Falls, RI)
Which 4 Made it to the Sweet 16?
Carnitas from La Vaquita: You can't miss this spot from the road: a giant cow beckons you from its rooftop. Their soft corn tortillas are homemade with a moistness matched only by their carnitas, which are crisp, fatty, and deeply porky. Order a couple from the takeout window, spoon on some of their fiery red salsa, and pull up a bench at one of the communal picnic tables out front where locals and travelers take a welcome break in the shade.
Chorizo from Tacos Matamoros: Of all the taquerias and taco trucks in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tacos Matamoros is our faovirte. Little bits of warmly spiced sausage crisp up on the griddle in this sit-down Mexican eatery. Whatever fat was in there melts into a warm, spicy, buttery-rich spread by the time it hits the tortilla. It's rich, but a squeeze of lime and a spoonful of bright salsa verde perfectly cuts the intensity.
45-08 5th Ave. Sunset Park, Brooklyn NY (map); 718-871-7627
Lengua from Don Nacho: You won't find much by way of creature comforts in Don Nacho's parking lot location, but you couldn't ask for better beef tongue; braised until meltingly tender then crisped up on a hot comal, it's got the deep beef flavor of a perfect steak, but with the tender-crisp contrast that only great tongue will get you.
234 Barton Street, Pawtucket RI 02860 (map); 401-688-2932
Chorizo and Papas from La Verdad: Located in the shadows of Fenway Park, the tequila bar at this sit-down restaurant can be packed with game-goers come Sox season. Dodge the crowds, the waiters and the wait, and instead head straight for the take-out window. Any taco you order comes atop a mini made-from-scratch tortilla. But the taco that knocks it out of the park is the Chorizo and Papas: Plump bits of ground pork sausage seasoned with a slew of warming spices like cinnamon, allspice and ground chile are served over tender potatoes that act like a sponge to soak up the sauce and grease. On top, thin slices of pickled red onion and a tart salsa verde.
Stay tuned for the Final Four picks tomorrow!
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