Who makes the best tacos in the area? I figure I’m qualified to answer that after eating more than 60 of them over the past four weeks. (Do I have cilantro in my teeth?) Here are my top picks based on complexity of flavors, quality of ingredients and the eagerness with which I devoured them. Happy Cinco de Mayo!
First Place: District Taco’s fish taco
Not only is this the best fish taco in D.C., it’s my favorite taco overall ($2.75). District Taco co-owner Osiris Hoil marinates tilapia filets in a mixture of guajillo chili peppers, lime, garlic and salt for 12 hours before grilling them and serving them whole with a chipotle mayonnaise. What makes this pick even more crave-worthy? It’s available only on Tuesdays and Fridays. “We like to keep things exciting,” Hoil says. “Fish taco day is a fiesta for us.”
Runner-up: Pica Taco’s fish taco
This tiny taqueria steams its tilapia, which gives the otherwise flaky fish some cohesion ($2.75). For the night of Cinco de Mayo only, Pica is offering two additional fish taco varieties, both grilled.
First Place: Tacos el Chilango’s al pastor taco
Juan Antonio’s parents owned the first taqueria in Mexico City, he says, so he’s got big tortillas to fill. The owner of Tacos el Chilango does Mama y Papa proud at his 15-seat restaurant, which opened in August. Antonio dips into the family recipe book for his al pastor taco: pork shoulder marinated in a homemade adobo sauce, onions and pineapple juice and then cooked over a low heat to re-create the rotating trompo grills popular throughout Mexico ($7.50 for three). Though subtle, the acidity from the pineapple complements the sweet cilantro and helps tenderize the meat.
Runner-up: Sol Mexican Grill’s carnitas taco
After pork is seared over a hot grill, it’s boiled in water for four hours with orange slices, bay leaves, garlic and Mexican spices ($7 for three). The result is a beyond-moist bite of pulled pork complemented by crunchy onions on top.
First Place: El Chucho’s pollo taco
Some taco enthusiasts will tell you that ordering them with meat as bland as chicken is a waste of your time. They must not have had the pollo at El Chucho ($5 for two). Chef Matthew Russell smokes whole chickens over Tecate-soaked applewood chips, then hand-shreds the meat and tops it with a homemade sofrito (essentially pureed pico de gallo), shredded cabbage, scallions, a squeeze of lime and crumbled cotija cheese. The masterpiece arrives on tiny corn tortillas made by El Milagro in Chicago, with which Russell has an exclusive contract so they’re not served anywhere else in the District.
Chicken tacos are a waste of your time.
First Place: Chinito’s Burrito’s carne asada taco
You won’t find a microwave, can opener or walk-in cooler at Chinito’s Burritos because the meat and produce arrive fresh every day from Union Market. The carne asada taco ($2) is made with strips of sirloin steak marinated in soy sauce, garlic, ginger and citrus for 24 hours and pan-seared over high heat. “I can make it so tender you don’t have to chew it, but that’s not steak,” says owner Jin Chong. Every bite releases a mix of citrus and savory jus.
Runner-up: Sol Mexican Grill’s barbacoa taco
Sol’s new H Street restaurant slings the same tacos as its food truck ($7 for three) plus beef barbacoa, meat slow-cooked over an open fire. Beef is marinated overnight in Mexican spices before it’s cooked for four hours and hand-pulled for a supple, smoky finish.
First Place: Far East Taco Grille’s spicy pork taco
Far East Taco Grille launched a truck last September and has since added another, with a burrito truck and restaurant on the way. The Korean-inspired spicy pork tacos may be the cause of such success ($3). The meat is tenderized in a blend of soy sauce and pureed vegetables before it’s slow-roasted over low heat. Top it with spicy pineapple sauce, kimchee slaw and onion-lime relish.
Runner-up: Mandu Korean’s pork taco
If you’re at Mandu when tacos are served (late night at the K Street location or after 5 p.m. in Dupont), order the pork ($7 for two). They’re topped with diced kimchee and cucumbers for crunch.
First Place: El Centro D.F.’s grilled nopal taco
The best way to describe cactus to someone who’s never eaten it is to compare it to gooey green peppers. Let El Centro D.F. convince you that’s a good thing. The fleshy plant is blanched, grilled, diced and served with roasted market vegetables and cojito and panela cheese ($10.95 for a platter with beans and rice). “You either love it or you hate it,” says chef Juan Romero. We like the way the panela cheese doesn’t melt, giving it added chewiness.
Runner-up: El Chucho’s calabacita taco
Mexican grey squash is breaded with panko and fried to a golden brown and topped with sauteed onions, poblano peppers and squash blossoms and drizzled with a fermented garlic puree for a balanced sweetness ($5 for two).
First Place: Pica Taco’s breakfast taco
Blink and you might miss one of the two Pica Taco shops in D.C. (a third is due in Springfield in a few months). The cramped family-owned restaurant’s breakfast tacos are made with fluffy, scrambled, farm-fresh eggs and topped with black beans and shredded cheddar and Jack cheese ($2.50). Add chorizo for a spicy kick or avocado for a buttery bite, or stick with the basics and drown it in salsa made fresh by owner Maria Villalta.
Runner-up: District Taco’s basic breakfast taco
“Basic” is right: It’s just scrambled eggs, cheese and roasted potatoes ($2.75). But things improve when you add guacamole, chorizo, beans and grilled vegetables for an additional cost.