Your Seven-Point Taco Crawl Game Plan
North of the Mexican border, the two most common, imitated, and dare I say reputable styles of tacos hail from California and Texas. Those from the West Coast using soft white corn tortillas, fresh radishes, tomatilla salsa, and tender braised meats such as pork shoulder or tongue. Then there’s its Southern counterpart, the crispy redneck cousin popularized by fast-food mogul Glen Bell (yes, of Taco Bell), with its pre-fried, U-shaped shell filled with ground beef, cheese, and gobs of sour cream.
Jeffrey Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, theorizes that the taco originated in the silver mines of Mexico in the 18th century, “taco” referring to pieces of paper that were wrapped around gunpowder and jammed into a rock face in order to excavate ore. In its own way, that’s what it still is today: an explosive little food bomb, bursting with a dense, knotted panoply of flavor.
Too often, purists attempt to pit these divergent styles against each other in a fruitless Stones vs. Beatles-type showdown. But Mick vs. Paul it is not, because frankly, you can stick just about anything into a tortilla (hard or soft) and call it a taco… as long as it’s tasty, of course. Here are seven of our current favorites that hail from both cramped, off-the-grid taquerias to a sashimi bar that dares to ask the question, “Are cephalopods the next great late night craving?”
The Fenway Stunner: El Pelón Taqueria: Caramelos Tacos
El Pelón Taqueria owner Jim Hoben might be best recognized for his swooping handlebar mustache and a burrito that is now being lauded as one of the country’s best by David Chang and FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. But Hoben has some other equally enticing offerings at his two taquerias, including some of the city’s best guacamole, mouth-watering carnitas enchiladas with verde sauce, and an alluring array of tacos. One of their most popular house specialties, according to Hoben, are his Caramelos tacos, made with grilled skirt steak, melted jack cheese, spicy salsa fresca, the aforementioned guac, and chef Jamie Mammano’s La Niña tortillas, which are delivered fresh every morning. “I think my favorite thing about the Caramelos is the contrast between the coolness of the guacamole and the kick of the hot sauce; another thing we make in-house each day,” Hoben says.
92 Peterborough St., Boston; 617-262-9090 or elpelon.com.
The Big Tex: Lone Star Taco Bar’s Dallas Spicy
Allston’s Lone Star Taco Bar might have Texas in the name, but chef Rian Wyllie draws inspiration from all over the map: the open-air markets of Mazatlan, Mexico, the taquerias of Southern California, and the Tex-Mex dives of co-owner Aaron Sanders’ native Dallas. It’s perfectly understandable if you’re drawn to Lone Star’s breakfast tacos served on hand-made masa harina corn tortillas or the mesquite-smoked barbacoa with avocado crema, but we can’t pass up the Dallas Spicy Beef made with ground beef simmered down with fire roasted bell peppers, onions, garlic, crimini mushrooms, jalapeño, dried Pasilla chiles, and a house “taco spice” mixture. To make it even more viscous and rich, Wyllie plunks in a dollop of masa, then serves it on fried Cinco de Mayo tortillas.
479 Cambridge St., Allston; 617-782-8226 or lonestar-boston.com.
The Cali Baja: Taqueria Cancun’s Fish Tacos
To put it mildly, Boston magazine photo editor Toan Trinh is a bit of a perfectionist. That’s doubly true when it comes to crisped fruits de mer nestled in the crook of a tortilla and dressed with tangy slaw. So when it came to one of his niche areas of interest, we yielded to his tireless expertise. Eastie’s Taqueria Cancun, might be an unheralded choice, but the tilapia has just the right amount of batter, the texture of the fish remains firm but juicy post fry-bath, and the choice of house-made salsas invigorate the palate. Pro tip: ask for the squirreled away, super spicy salsa (offered by request only) and buck tradition by opting for Cancun’s house-made flour tortillas in place of white corn.
192 Sumner St., East Boston; 617-567-4449.
The Real Deal: Taqueria El Amigo’s Carne Asada
Don’t look now, but with the opening of Red Bird in July, the sheer brilliance of Joshua Smith’s charcuterie program at Moody’s Delicatessen and Provisions, and Best of Boston winner Taqueria El Amigo, Waltham is becoming something of a culinary destination. This cash-only hole-in-the-wall (I say that lovingly) makes a robust pollo con mole and has some of the sexiest taco offerings to boot: silky cabeza (beef cheek meat), Al pastor—hold the fruit—made with pork butt coated in smokey guajillo, and well-seasoned, umami-laden carne asada . Six dollars will get you four piping-hot tacos, all with juicy shards of meat, pliable tortillas, a fresh wedge of avocado, and the universal garnish of chopped onion, cilantro, and lime.
196 Willow St., Waltham; 781-642-7410.
The Lavish Lobster: Lineage’s Lobster Tacos
Compared to Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34, a recent nominee for Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit, chef Jeremy Sewall’s eight-year-old Brookline restaurant, Lineage, seems fairly low profile. That doesn’t mean that food is any less nuanced or excellent than his other more celebrated endeavors, though. Case in point, the lobster tacos made with house-made taco shells, avocado mousse, a mango salsa studded with “lots of cilantro,” and lobsters caught daily by Sewall’s cousins Mark, who run a lobster boat out of York Harbor, Maine. “When I first made them back in 2007, I really did it because I had way too much lobster leftover,” Sewall says. “To be honest, It wasn’t something I had initially intended to keep on the menu, but now they fly out of the kitchen every night of the year. They perform really, really well.”
242 Harvard St., Brookline; 617-232-0065 or lineagerestaurant.com.
The Savory Steal: Taco Loco’s Chicken Tacos
Idealists will swoon over its authenticity, the budget-conscious will be dumbfounded by the prices ($2 pupusas?!?), and foodies will nod knowingly over the freshness of each ingredient. Manned by the Morales family for well over a decade, this out-of-the-way Somerville spot has been making some of the best affordable Mexican food anywhere in Boston. The full range of burritos and quesadillas are stick-to-your-ribs good, but we recommend the street tacos with fillings like Abodaba pork cooked with garlic and vinegar; crispy, deep-fried chicharron; and piquant chicken that’s spoon-tender. Don’t be afraid to go nuts with the accoutrements either, with choices like chopped red onion, cilantro, cheese, pickled cabbage, fresh pico de gallo, and a number of fiery salsas.
44 Broadway, Somerville; 617-625-3830 or tacolocomexican.com.
The Japanese Upgrade: Uni’s Octopus Tacos
In late July, Uni executive chef Tony Messina decided it was due time to change up his popular late night menu. Judging by the overwhelming response to new dishes like his donburi bowls, takoyaki with kewpie mayo, and in particular, his hard shell tacos, it appears Messina is onto something. In fact, customers devoured so many of his baby octopus tacos—seared in bacon fat and served with harissa-braised potatoes, sautéed broccoli rabe, an avocado crème, micro cilantro, and pickled red onions—that they exhausted his supply. Now, Uni can only offer their cephalopod special on a bi-weekly basis. “This was actually a suggestion by my girlfriend who said, ‘why don’t you make a tako taco,'” Messina says. “It was a fun little alliteration, so I took that idea and ran with it. Not only were they really tasty, they were so hugely popular we had to streamline almost immediately.”
370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston; 617-536-7200 or unisashimibar.com.