(Travel + Leisure) Robert Flicker recently experienced a conversion—of the tortilla-wrapped variety. “I’d been a believer that a truly great taco must be served in a dive and consist of chicken, beef, or pork,” says the Nevada communications executive.
But the taco appetizer at Mandalay Bay’s Fleur—with tuna tartare, ponzu, serrano peppers, and an avocado cream—changed his mind. “It elevated the taco,” he praises, “into the realm of fine-dining legitimacy.”
For comfort-foodies who embrace the nuances of grass-fed burgers and artisan donuts, the taco is finding a new picante status. Even high-end gourmands are on board: chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s award-laden Noma recently tweeted his enthusiasm for the distinctly non-high-end, Queens-based Tacos Morelos.
When we looked around the nation for the best tacos, we focused primarily on taquerias where the hand-held delicacy gets top billing—and we still found more style and variety than could fit in any one Tuesday.
Many purist taquerias give thoughtful renditions of classic Mexican street tacos like the al pastor (spit-grilled pork), carnitas (braised pork), or barbacoa (which can refer to beef, lamb, or goat); others offer more exotic twists. In Arizona, you can find a Peking duck taco paired with fried Brie, while an East Nashville mainstay turns out a sweet-potato-and-quinoa version. And a few beloved holdouts still go hard-line with the hard shells, topped with good ol’ shredded iceberg.
“A great taco presents a blend of textures and flavors that merge with a tortilla,” says StreetGourmetLA and Los Angeles magazine food blogger Bill Esparza. “It must become a stew once you take the first bite.”
Here’s where to chow down on America’s best tacos from that first bite to the messy last, every day of the week.
Tacos Morelos - New York City
This taqueria started as a tiny truck in New York’s biggest hotbed for tacos—Jackson Heights, Queens—and has since spawned branches in Williamsburg and the East Village (including a new four-table restaurant). It does classic, authentic tacos, such as the al pastor, carnitas, lengua, and barbacoa, each double-stack of handmade corn tortillas topped with cilantro, onions, guacamole, and hot sauce. The showstopper, though, is the placeros (“market tacos”), which acts as a blue-plate surprise: the tacos are filled with a daily special, such as a gooey, cheese-filled chile relleno with rice. Need further enticement? Noma’s René Redzepi is a huge fan. 438 E. 9th St.; (347) 772-5216
Guisados - Los Angeles, California
With locations in Boyle Heights and Echo Park, this taqueria focuses on Mexico City–style guisados (traditional meat braises), with the biggest crowd-pleaser being the peppery cochinita pibil—slow-roasted pork, with pickled red onions on top. Rotating guisado stews also include costillas en mole negro (pork riblets in a dark mole sauce), old-fashioned menudo (tripe), and the test-your-machismo peppers-only chiles torreados (roasted serrano, Fresno, Thai, jalapeño, and habanero). If you can’t commit to one filling, ask for the Taco Sampler, comprising six tiny tacos piled on mini handmade corn tortillas.
Taco Guild - Phoenix, Arizona
Located in a rehabbed Methodist church that dates back to 1893—and which still features the original stained glass and wooden pews—this Phoenix taqueria promises a near-spiritual experience. The menu offers both so-called old world and new school tacos: “old world” includes a coffee-braised beef, topped with caramelized onions and mango-jicama relish, while “new school” offerings include a Peking duck taco with plum sauce, poblano-apricot compote, and fried Brie, as well as a Thai snapper taco with coconut green curry.
Torchy’s Tacos - Austin, Texas
Reaching Lone Star State dominance (with locations in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Waco, and even Lubbock), Torchy’s Tacos started in Austin as a food truck whose owner zipped around on his scooter passing out free chips and green salsa. Today’s menu pays homage to the state capital’s politicos: The Republican (grilled jalapeño sausage with cheese and pico de gallo on a flour tortilla), The Democrat (shredded barbacoa and avocado on corn), and The Independent (fried portobello with roasted corn, spicy pickled carrots, and refried black beans). Apolitical types can opt for The Trailer Park, a batter-fried chicken breast topped with sautéed green chiles. Either way, make room for the green-chiles-and-jalapeño-loaded queso.
La Taquería - San Francisco, California
Long before San Francisco became known as the mother ship for foodies, the city was famed for its Mission burritos, those kitchen-sink wonders wrapped in foil. And while this Mission District institution—one of the best Mexican restaurants in the U.S.—offers a somewhat anti-establishment burrito (it’s rice-free), it continues to stand out among the local taquerias for its Mission-burrito-hearted carnitas taco, which features two shells (one hard, one soft and lined with cheese) generously stuffed with meat, beans, and salsa.
Garbo’s Grill – Key West, Florida
It’s a long way from Baja, but this taco and burrito cart (operating from a toothily-painted truck called Mr. Bomber Van Sharkson) embraces the Atlantic Coast’s South of the Border flavors—like jerk chicken and tropical fruit. Try the Cayo Fish Taco, which features mahimahi, mango, jalapeños, cabbage, and a Caribbean sauce, or the Yum Yum Shrimp Taco, which showcases the local Key West pinks.
Big Star – Chicago, Illinois
Embracing a honky-tonk spirit, with such patron saints as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, the Wicker Park taqueria—one of America’s best outdoor restaurants—keeps its menu pared down, with just five authentic taco options, including an al pastor (grilled pork with pineapple) and a taco panza (crispy pork belly with guajillo sauce). And while traditional honky-tonks rarely speak of “pairings,” here your beverage choice is considered vital: Big Star’s drink menu has two dozen beers, as many tequilas, and nearly 60 whiskeys, ryes, and bourbons. If none of those suit, you can wash down your taco with a house dulce de leche milkshake.
Mi Mero Mole – Portland, Oregon
With locations in both the Northwest and Southeast parts of town, this PDX taqueria (abbreviated “Mmm”) takes its inspiration from the stewlike guisados of Mexico City’s street food. The meat- or veggie-based stews are piled onto nixtamal tortillas, a more textured version than the more common, masa-based tortillas. The rotating menu of guisados can include plenty of veggie options—say, potatoes with cactus—as well as exotic meat guisados such as blood sausage, rabbit, or even colitas de pavo (smoked turkey tails).
Mas Tacos Por Favor – Nashville, Tennessee
This former Winnebago-based food truck boasts of being “the best thing in Nashville since country music,” with a menu that reflects an East Nashville hipster bent more than good ol’ boy tastes. Its brick-and-mortar home is known for its sweet potato and quinoa taco and a fried avocado taco, though you can also get authentic Mexican street-food sides, such as grilled corn on the cob (elote) rolled in mayo, spices, and Cotija cheese.
Garcia’s Mexican Food – San Antonio, Texas
Talk about purist: at this 53-year-old San Antonio mainstay, Tex meets Mex head-on, without any unnecessary distractions. The Brisket Taco features a meal-sized slab of classic smoked brisket on a tortilla, with perhaps just a bit of guac and a side of pico de gallo, while the Pork Chop Taco is just that—a thin, bone-in chop on a flour tortilla with salsa.
Get the rest of the list at Travel + Leisure: Best Tacos in America
More From Travel + Leisure:
America's Best Places to Eat Like a Local
Best Mexican Restaurants in the U.S.
America's Best Restaurants for Ethnic Food
Podcast – Out to Lunch: Tacos beyond the box and Bell
Food in the Field: Some of Texas' finest tacos, in the back of a 24-hour gas station
Blogger Spotlight: Taco Trail
You miss Tacos Ayotte on Glendale & 19th avenue in Phoenix. People are in line out the door from the minute they open until they close. Best "street tacos" (especially the fish) you'll find ANYWHERE.
hemp and marijuana is all it takes
I saw yo kine on the sepatown
It's hard to find a good taco al pastor in the US. I lived in Mexico City and there they paint the sauce on the meat as it cooks and it gets carmelized and crunchy and soooooooo good. Back here in CA they cook the meat then cut it and cook it on a flat top with some sauce. It's not the same, not even close. In Mexico we ate tacos al pastor every day, sometimes twice, they were so good.
I like how people who read this list, based on pure opinion, discredit it with their own personal opinion. Its a list of great tacos: I am sure some on this list would make me gag, and some of the ones I have enjoyed better didn't make this list.
But seriously people, why get so butt-hurt about it if your favorite neighborhood taco joint isn't on the list? Its the modern day equivalency of a turf war (which seems pathetic in and of itself)
Any list which features Mexican restaurants and starts with a place in New York City and no place in San Diego should be immediately suspect!
El Parasol in Santa Fe, NM. Fine Tacos.
Yes i have eaten there and they are awesome. Sorry but the mere fact that New Mexico is not on this list is laughable.
Mama Testa's in San Diego anyone?
C'mon. What a stupid list without any mention of San Diego's finest taquerias.
I'm sure Garcia's is great (There are hundreds of great taquerias in San Antonio), but any mention of San Antonio in a Taco story needs to reference the "Puro San Antonio" creation, the "Puffy Taco"
That's like saying the best pizza in Chicago is some thin-crust place, or saying the best ribs in Memphis are served wet St Louis Style Ribs. When it comes to Tacos in San Antonio, the story starts with puffy tacos.
They may have the best puffy tacos but the best puffy tacos still arent as good as traditional ones, so the other place can easily still have better tacos. I doubt the best pizza in california is californian style, its probably chicago or NY style because california style sucks.
Agreed. Been in CA for 25 years and havent had a good pizza or bagel since I left the East Coast. People from New York wouldnt recognize the "bagels" here – no gluten, bready, crumbly and THEY DONT BOIL THEM FIRST!
But the Mexican food here can be very good unlike the "Tex Mex". Remember, Tex Mex is another name for bland, bad Mexican food.
Epic fail on the Tex Mex comment.
"America" is a big place. Bigger than the United States to be sure. There is no doubt the best real tacos – not over priced steak on flat bread things shown here - are south of the Rio Grande.
There is only one thing suited to consuming Mexican food...it is called a dumpster...
You haven't even graduated from Troll Elementary School.
You goobers are missing some of the best hidden tacos in the country.Located in the Mushroom Capital of the World, Kennett Square, PA. La Michoacana Grill- try the fish tacos. Best stuff. Seriously.
Im sure youve been to all the places in the list for comparison
This is actually funny. So far from even being close. Torchy's made this list? That's like saying Burger King has one of the top ten burgers in America.
Anyone travelling through the mid-part of the country should try Mission Taco Joint in St Louis. Their tacos would likely give some on this list a run for their money.
These top 10 articles I always take with a grain of salt. How many states did they not even visit to consider winners?
Some of the best Mexican food I've ever had was in Alaska, believe it or not.
With all the fresh wild game and fresh fish in Alaska I'm sure there would be some fabulous ingredients to make into tacos!
Only because you don't know what Mexican food is. Alaska.....really?
Tortilla + filling = taco.
Yep, those crazy Alaskans would sure fail miserably at that, either Mexican or their own spin on things.
Joe, why would you think there can't be a great Mexican restaurant in any state? Proximity to Mexico has nothing to do with quality of food.
LOL. You know some people in AK are from Mexico, right?
This might blow your mind, but 5.5% of the population in AK is Hispanic. That would be 1 in 20, Ace.
Las Cuatro Milpas in the Barrio Logan area of San Diego has, hands down, THE best tacos in the US. Since the 1930s.
Tim, you hit this one on the head. Fresh made daily tortillas, goat cheese, chicken or carne (Actually Pork), Salsa is oil based and the best I have ever tasted. This list is a joke with out Los Quatros Milpas at the top.
I'm glad someone said it, Tim E! I was waiting to see if Las Cuatro Milpas or other great taco places in San Diego this city hosts (some of the best!) would be represented. What a laughable list.
My first thought when seeing this story was, "They better have some place in San Diego on the list." Seriously, San Diego has some of the best and most authentic Mexican restaurants in the country. It doesn't get any more authentic than Las Cuatro Milpas. I'm willing to bet that the folks that put this list together wouldn't go down to Barrio Logan. One more thing – just putting something into a tortilla doesn't make it a taco. Peking duck and Brie? Really?
Authentic Street Tacos from Tacos El Gordo did not make the list? lol. They have 3 locations, 1 Chula Vista Ca, 1 National City Ca, and Las Vegas Nevada. A place that is run by the same family that started their business in Tijuana Mexico. I'd much rather go with Authentic family recipes than over priced gourmet BS.
Maybe I need to try the original location in Vegas off of Charleston, but the one on the Strip is not the best I ever had, not even in my top 3 for street tacos in Vegas.
What's with all the 10 worst this and 10 best that? Geez! BTW, how friggin' hard can it be to make a taco?
Fish tacos on the Malecon in San Felipe, Baja. Sit outside at the bar next door. Two tacos/three beers!
Reblogged this on Pro City Vault.
Anyone who says "guac" is immediately dismissed.
Yep, along with anyone who says Frisco.
God, I love tacos. *fist pump*
Torchy's tacos are lame.
Torchy's is descent, but anyone in texas could name 10 resturants with better taco's for sure. This is likely a paid advertising campaign.
If lame equates to a-taco-only-a-cluesless-no-taste-hipster-would-eat then I agree.
Tuna taco anyone?
I LUV Pink Tacos–'buff said.
You like buff pink taco? Meh, to each their own. I like mine lady-like.
Never been munch of a taco fan. I prefer burritos – buff or otherwise. ~_~
They do look great quite flavorful and plenty filling, Not like the ones my mother used to make, but good healthy tacos anyway..
If you want good tacos go to Mexico. Fresh caught fish tacos...now that's what I call a gourmet taco. Man is that some good stuff. I want to go back to Mexico, sit down on the beach, stare at the ocean, and down a few Dos Equis while eating some fresh sea food. The U.S. has some great stuff and a much better economy, but nothing we have in this country compares to the sights I've seen in Mexico. That kind of natural beauty doesn't exist in our country.
Seriously? I've been to both, and no comparison. Literally.....
They each have their own scores of natural beauty, and to claim one is better than the other is like comparing chicharrones to pork rinds
what a crock, not one place in san diego and torchy's is SO OVERRATED.
Too true. Places in NY & TN? I'm sure they are just fine, but this "10 best" seems to have been written by a travel editor.
While I agree that San Diego is a great place for Mexican food, to assume that Tennessee and/or New York can't have good Mexican food based on their distance from Mexico is ludicrous and faulty logic. I know that anyone who has ever lived in Mexican or trained under Mexican chefs would never, oh, I don't know, move to Memphis or Brooklyn. :P
Taco Bell, nuf said.
Mexicans must be laughing their collective butts off at this pretentious BS. Gourmet Tacos? Ha
True, but remember sushi started out as street food from carts too, and now its nothing but overpriced gourmet food...
Lobster used to be considered nasty crap that only poor people would eat. Times change. How food is considered is not immutable.
Lobster used to be so cheap it was used as fertilizer. Salmon used to be considered a trash fish. Escoffiier said that if it wasn't so common people would love cod.
Actually many of the traditional 'gourmet' foods are peasant foods that have been elevated. Read any traditional French cookbook and they will celebrate simply fried fish, tripe, breads, etc. that are simply very tasty peasant food.
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