Would you drive out of your way for a good taco?
This is a question I’ve been turning over in my head for days, debating the pros and cons and examining the inherent bias buried in the inquiry itself.
I mean, why wouldn’t you make a special trip for good tacos? I can hear the usual discouraging words rush into my brain like dirty floodwaters:
Because I can get good tacos anywhere.
Why should I waste $10 in gas on $3 tacos?
Taquerias are not Michelin-starred restaurants.
The older I get, the more these lines sound like prejudices, a form of casual racism that’s deeply ingrained and not thoroughly vetted. These words sound like the excuses the privileged use to justify their disregard for a cuisine when it’s not convenient for them. You say you love tacos, but what are you willing to sacrifice for a good one? Your time? Your comfort?
The small risk here, of course, is that you might waste an afternoon on something that you ultimately deem a mediocre experience, or one that made you feel like a stranger in your own country.
To which I’d say: There is value in that, too. There is value in the very decision to make a destination of another culture’s food. There is value in experiencing America how so many others do, as outsiders looking in. There is value in stretching your boundaries.
Each of these 10 taquerias may stretch your boundaries. They certainly stretched mine — at least the act of picking my favorites did. It strained my loyalties to old standbys and forced me to question whether I prefer tradition or modernity. (I side with the former.) This is, without question, the single hardest list I’ve ever compiled. Good taco shops were left off this Top 10, places I deeply respect and enjoy.
Then there were the ones that slipped through my fingers, like a place in Germantown, Md., called El Chilango Mexican Grill. El Chilango was recommended by a taco hound on Twitter, who forwarded a photo of the shop’s al pastor tower, which stands erect next to an open flame, its marinated pork glistening for the camera. This looked like al pastor perfection, and I couldn’t drive to Germantown fast enough to try it.
But when I arrived at the designated location, there was nothing but dark, silent storefronts and an empty parking lot. I drove up and down Frederick Road, in hopes that El Chilango was, for the love of God and grilled pork, concealed inside another business. It was not. I walked into a nearby beer-and-wine shop and asked the clerk about El Chilango. He told me it was a food trailer, which unfolds like a Transformer into a parking-lot taqueria. You can’t miss it when it’s open, he said. There will be a line.
And that was that. I had made a long trek to Germantown and come away empty-handed. The trip was yet another reminder, as if I needed one, that not all taco adventures have happy endings. I trust your travels to the taquerias below will have rosier outcomes. I know they all have regular hours. They also have some of the best tacos anywhere.
The tortillas here are not made in-house, but they come off the griddle warm and slightly crispy from a light application of oil. The shop specializes in off-cuts, including beef head, intestines and tongue. The cabeza, or beef head, is the star, a rich, shredded mixture that benefits from a drizzle of green salsa, a house condiment that looks timid but has serious bite. Despite its name’s association with the gringo-friendly destination on the Yucatán Peninsula, Taqueria Cancun feels like the closest thing Washingtonians have to a real Mexican taco stand, in both atmosphere and eats. I could almost imagine the beaches of Isla Mujeres outside, the warm waters and salty air beckoning as I gobbled up the last of my tacos. 7810 Lee Hwy., Falls Church, Va. 703-415-6582.
Tucked into a tiny storefront in Navy Yard, Taco City D.C. is a joint project from Juan Jimenez and Francisco Ferrufino, a pair of Washington hospitality veterans who ventured out on their own last year. Their tacos, each swaddled in a griddled housemade tortilla, lean on tradition while also catering to palates not raised on beef tongue. The carnitas taco, a juicy pile of pork, is garnished with fried pork rinds for a nice, gnarly crunch. The Brussels sprouts taco features a mess of little charred cabbages, the whole thing smothered in creamy avocado salsa. It’s messy. It’s delicious. 1102 Eighth St. SE. 202-629-4012. tacocitydc.com.
No taqueria takes as many chances as Taco Bamba, the small local chain owned by Victor Albisu, a chef with exceptional fine-dining chops. Albisu and his main accomplice, chef Tom Hall, push the outer limits of taco invention. If classic Mexican tacos embrace minimalism, Taco Bamba prefers complexity with its tacos nuestros, which vary by location. You’ll find tacos packed with kung pao shrimp, shishito peppers and miso-agave rice (the Drunken Master, a nod to the Chinatown Bamba) or braised pork belly, chicken liver pâté and pickled radish (the Banh-Mijo, unique to the Vienna shop). These innovations would rate higher if they weren’t wrapped by a pair of thick tortillas, which too often gum up the deliciousness inside them, throwing off the taco’s balance. Various locations in Virginia and Washington. tacobamba.com.
Last year, the owners behind the Taco Bar, a beloved counter inside a Gaithersburg gas station, opened the more expansive Ixtapalapa Taqueria. It’s named after their home turf outside Mexico City, a crowded suburb that rarely gets good press. It can get crowded in Jose and Mayte Valdivia’s taqueria, too, as diners line up at the counter to place orders. First among equals is chef Mayte Valdivia’s cochinita pibil taco, a sweet, piquant and slightly acidic pork preparation originating from the Yucatán. Spike it with the kitchen’s nearly flammable red salsa and you have one of the best tacos in the region. 411 N. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg, Md. 240-702-0217.
In recent years, the tiny takeout inside the Shell station at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Waterloo Road in Howard County has been as combustible as the fuel at the pumps. At least three taquerias have occupied this real estate, yet the one constant amid all fluctuation has been chef Jose Flores. He’s now the owner of Callejero’s Tacos, which currently occupies the sliver of space inside the station. He’s a traditionalist at heart: soft, fresh tortillas. Classic fillings, such as barbacoa lamb, cochinita pibil and Mexican chorizo. Take-no-prisoner salsas, both red and green. You’ll wait for your tacos here, but they’ll be worth it. 7894 Washington Blvd., Elkridge, Md. 443-620-5952.
The epicurean taco, I’d argue, is a still relatively modern invention, designed to satisfy the ambitions of the chef and the palates of fussy diners who may not dig on pork skin. No one does fancy tacos better than Espita, starting with the masa program headed by Yesenia Neri-Diaz, who works with four varietals of corn to prepare the multicolored tortillas. From there, chef Robert Aikens stuffs the rounds with fillings that, much to my surprise, do not stray far from the traditions on which they lean. The tacos come already sauced, which may frustrate those who like to customize theirs. But one bite of the chorizo, pressed into a blue-corn tortilla with a vibrant splash of salsa verde, and I suspect you won’t mind surrendering a little control. 1250 Ninth St. NW. 202-621-9695. espitadc.com.
El Sol was the first bricks-and-mortar restaurant from chefs and siblings Alfredo and Jessica Solis, a pair of Mexico City natives who pamper their dishes as much as Eric Ripert fusses over his fish. Take the tortillas; the chefs have perfected a technique to press masa into rounds as thin as crepes. The tortillas allow the fillings to take center stage, as they should, while perfuming the snack with the ephemeral scent of corn. One of my go-to tacos is the nopales, in which strips of cactus paddle-lounge in a tortilla with fresh cheese and diced onions and tomatoes. A squeeze of lime, a large squirt of salsa verde, and life doesn’t get much better. 1227 11th St. NW. 202-815-4789. elsol-dc.com.
On the weekends, the line at Taqueria La Placita snakes out the door and onto the covered sidewalk, where a mariachi-band diorama stands on the roof, serenading you with the sounds of silence. Yes, you get a slice of folk art with your lunch at this nose-to-tail taqueria. This place leaves no part of the animal unused. It serves tortillas packed with beef head, pork cheeks, pork skin, beef tongue, intestines, pig ears and even pork lips. La Placita also serves a traditional al pastor, with succulent sections of pork sliced right off the skewer. There’s a reason owner Javier Martinez’s taqueria serves hundreds and hundreds of hungry customers every weekend. 5020 Edmonston Rd., Hyattsville, Md. 301-277-4477.
No other taco plate approaches the beauty of the one at this Manassas taqueria. Your selections will be artfully arranged on an oval dish, the tortillas flat, not folded, so you can better inspect the fillings. The plate will be garnished with wedges of lime, thick slices of fresh cucumber and radish and even a pair of cebollitas, these slightly browned spring onions whose wilted tops will snake across your tacos. You’ll want to take a minute to appreciate this edible artwork before making it disappear. There’s not a bad taco in the bunch, but don’t miss the mixto, a rich, gelatinous combination of carnitas, pork belly and pork skin. For a small surcharge, you can wrap your fillings in housemade corn tortillas. 8562 Mathis Ave., Manassas, Va., 703-335-6663.
Back in the kitchen, an employee is dedicated to nothing but tortillas. She stands next to a mound of masa, squeezing off small chunks to roll and gently press into thin, lovely rounds, which she’ll flip onto a griddle to pick up some heat and color. These tortillas, as important as bread to a good sandwich, are the foundation for the best tacos in the Washington area. Even more than at their original spot, on 14th Street NW, chef-owners Dio Montero and Mirna Montero-Alvarado mix tradition with innovation at their new College Park restaurant, turning out tacos stuffed with fillings from both land and sea, from carnitas to octopus. If you’re lucky, the grasshopper tacos will be available as a special, offering the best evidence yet that toasted insects, in the right hands, make for terrific fillings. 8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park, Md. 240-241-4486. habanerocp.com.
Honorable mentions: Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park; Oyamel in Penn Quarter; Tacos el Costalilla in Alexandria; Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana on 14th Street NW; Taqueria Del Barrio on Upshur St. NW; Chaia Tacos in Georgetown and Chinatown; Tacos, Tortas and Tequila in Silver Spring; Tacos el Chilango on V Street NW; Taqueria Nacional on T Street NW; Bandit Taco on New Hampshire Avenue NW; La Jarochita No. 2 in Arlington.