Unlike in our reviews of local pizza and espresso, we couldn’t find an established method of rating tacos. This led Jen to devise what will undoubtedly become the international standard for taco measurement, to sit alongside the official kilogram and the atomic clock. We asked the staff at each restaurant for their favorite taco, and each was rated on the following criteria:
- Is it visually appealing, fresh, colorful, and generally begging to be devoured? 1-10 points
- Is it delicious? Are the flavors balanced yet complex? How’s the moisture content? 1-10 points
- How’s the texture? No preference for soft or crunchy, but rated on its own merit. 1-10 points
- Is there a good sauce to heat ratio? Is it too spicy or too bland? Do you reach for the salsa? 1-10 points
- Tacos are a hand food, not a garment. Will you be wearing it, or is it built to last? 1-10 points
- How original is the combination of ingredients, or how well does it pull off a classic? 1-5 points.
The above were assessed by each judge, for a total possible score of 55 per judge or 165 per establishment. The scores were totaled. Before lighting your torches and grabbing your pitchforks, note that Facebook favorite Acapulco was on vacation at the time of this taste-test and La Nortena and the Jalapeno Truck were closed, so we couldn’t include them.
Bringing up the rear in 7th place with 72 points – and we don’t think they’ll be too heartbroken to hear it – is national taco purveyor Taco Bell. While the Doritos
In a dead tie for 6th at 75 points each we find Fresco Tortilleria and Yummy Taco, two of what we called “late-night” taco places with a lot of similarities. Unfortunately, most of those similarities revolved around details such as chicken apparently made from sustainable recycled card stock and lettuce that matched the faded colors advertised on the glowing signs. However, not to be too harsh, we all agreed that we wouldn’t turn either one down should we stop in on our way home from the bar, and Yummy taco was actually the only place we went to that pressed their tortillas freshly for our order, which added quite a lot to the texture. While it didn’t win them any additional points, these are probably also the only local taquerias that you can order from in Mandarin.
Up next in 5th with a score of 114 is neighborhood staple Papacito’s, which was the only place to serve us up a totally vegan taco. During my brief, unfortunate tenure working the sandwich grill at a deli, I can sympathize with the difficulties inherent in trying to work with seitan rather than meat. Unlike meat, it is very unforgiving – it relies entirely on the cook for flavor, adding little of its own, and the texture is easy to miss. While Papacito’s wasn’t our favorite overall – we found the tortillas to be the day’s greasiest and the visuals unappealing – this was in no way due to it being vegan, which is an appreciable benefit. We were left wondering, though, why one would need to bother with seitan when tacos work so well with other bean and vegetable ingredients anyhow. Papacito’s also boasts a full mexican menu, though the beer (Sol, in this case) was relatively expensive compared to similar restaurants.
Coming in 4th at 123 was where we ended our night, Greenpointer’s perennial favorite spot Greenpoint Heights. They were nice enough to offer us their whole spread, an impressive array of eight different varieties of taco, each piled high with filling, yummy goodness. While none of them totally blew our socks off, it’s important to note that of all the establishments we visited Greenpoint Heights is the one least directly focused on tacos. As far as bar food goes, you’ll be hard pressed to do better – Matt found it the most visually appealing of the night, and Yana praised the “true-blue fish taco.” I for one loved the sweet-savory combo of the plantain taco, a perfect compromise between dinner and dessert.
In 3rd with 135, and getting my vote for the most original of the day, we find El Toro Taqueria. They offered up their Coreano taco, a delicious blend of steak and kimchi. We knocked them a bit for the presentation, but were in agreement as far as flavor goes. It’s a great combination, and Matt suggests trying it in burrito format. I’m a big fan of El Toro’s elote, and my only complaint about the restaurant as a whole is a weird one: their entire backyard area, from fences to tables to deck, is painted an identical shade of ochre. At dusk, this results in a total lack of definition for the slight lip which resulted (my clumsiness had absolutely nothing to do with it, of course) in my sending a platter full of empty trays and corn cobs cascading before me on a recent evening. Klutzes and people with poor depth perception beware: El Toro is treacherous, but entirely worth the risk.
Barely, just barely short of the title with 139.5 total points is Vamos al Tequila, in 2nd with two tacos that completely redefined how we thought of this whole contest. I’ll start by noting that Vamos generally offers tacos as a set of two, so it’s a bit more of a full entrée than many bars and informal restaurants that offer them a la carte. They chose two to send out to us: a steak variety and the Popeye taco, which I idiotically kept calling the “Pop-ay-ye” taco until I realized that I wasn’t missing the subtle spanish pronunciation, about which I am clueless, but rather the entire Popeye reference befitting a spinach taco. Both were more suited to a knife and fork than the hand, but oh man, were they delicious. These were the tacos that had us scrambling to catch every last bite off the plate and think up how soon we could come back for a full order. Our complaints were small: Matt found the spinach a bit too spicy and the steak a bit messy, but still gave it a near-perfect score. The spinach was probably the most interesting vegetarian option we encountered all night, and the pineapple hiding amongst the steak was a great touch.
Coming in 1st with a grand total of 141 points is the ever-popular Calexico. They won us over with an artfully presented, balanced, and just straight-up classic fish taco that featured a perfectly breaded and cooked former ocean dweller over a bed of mango salsa. It just fits exactly what you want out of a summer taco: filling, light on the stomach, and balanced perfectly against a backdrop of cocktails and good beer. Matt feels inclined to give a very mild warning that you might notice some variation in the quality day-to-day, but that advice comes in the same sentence as an admission that he had ordered these for dinner the previous night, so clearly it’s not much of a deterrent. The owner notes that a new chef has recently taken up residence, so keep an eye for the possibility of new offerings to compliment the really satisfying staples.