When we ventured down into the United States, little did we know we would soon be struck by a newfound love – an obsession really – for Mexican food. Sure, we have dabbled in fajitas and flautas up here in Canada, and we certainly know of some good Toronto spots to procure a perfectly cheesy burrito, (hellooooo Burrito Boys!) but nothing compares to some of the experiences we had down south. There was even a period where we ate Mexican style fair for every single meal for days on end (eggs go so perfectly well with beans, cheese and salsa, its ridiculous).
We could go on and on about our Mexican-flavoured culinary adventures AND our New Mexican adventures as well (sopapillas and green chili rellenos seriously changed our lives), but today we delve into the simple yet spectacular world of tacos!
Without further adieu, we bring you our Top 3 Favourite Taco Joints in The United States of America!
#3 Torchy’s Tacos (Trailer Park location) Austin Texas
We love Austin Texas, mostly because of the endless varieties of food truck cuisine you can find in almost every vacant parking lot. From farm fresh dishes to gourmet doughnuts, you can find just about anything being served through the window of a trailer in this city. One of the most popular food trucks in town is Torchy’s Tacos, and although they also have restaurant locations, we hold that the Trailer Park variety of Torchy’s is the best variety. Where else can you sit under the Texan sun, and eat “queso that’s so good its like crack” (as described by a local Austinite), followed by a “Dirty Sanchez” (a variety of taco on Torchy’s colourful menu). There is something about the big empty parking lot, the picnic tables, the big old trees and dusty Texan soil beneath your feet – all creating that perfect taco-eating atmosphere.
If you haven’t experienced food trucks outside of the generic chip truck or ice cream truck that can be found in any fairground or city park across this continent, you might not realize just how wonderful the Austin food truck culture really is. To be fair, a similar experience can be had in Portland Oregon, but lets stay on track here. Today our focus is on the mighty taco, and at Torchy’s, the taco definitely takes centre stage.
On the menu you will find tacos of every variety you can imagine – from fried avocado to Ahi tuna to jerk chicken or scrambled eggs! And they all have intriguing names… “The Ranch Hand”, “The Brush Fire”, “Mr. Pink”, “The Crossroads”… Luke narrowed if down to “The Republican” or “The Democrat”. In the end, he voted Democrat and was presented with a taco of shredded beef barbacoa topped with fresh avocado, queso fresco, cilantro, onions and a wedge of lime, served with tomatillo sauce on a fresh corn tortilla.
He was in love at first bite and, like most meals that he thoroughly enjoys, he talked about that taco for days.
I think above all else, the Torchy’s Taco Trailer Park experience is the perfect summation of what life is like in Austin Texas. Its quirky, its rich with culture, food is a priority among its residents, and its truly Texan. If you find yourself in Austin, Torchy’s Tacos should be on the very top of your to-do list!
#2 Jenny’s Mexican, Limon Colorado
Never heard of Limon Colorado? I’m not surprised. It’s a bit of a do-nothing town located just over the border from Kansas where the land is surprisingly dead flat and the only thing of real interest is the hundreds of prairie dogs scattered alertly over the surrounding countryside. But on the main drag of Limon there lies an absolute gem of a restaurant, where the tacos are the real deal. Now sadly, when we stopped in at Jenny’s Mexican, we didn’t have our cameras with us (probably because we were starving and not thinking straight and didn’t expect this experience to be share-worthy… our mistake). As a result, I have no personal photos to illustrate my description, and a quick Google search reveals that they don’t have a website. Hopefully I can create an accurate image of this place in your mind…
Jenny’s Mexican is certainly not the most fancy establishment in town, and though quirky, we got the feeling that the owners were not trying to achieve “quirk” when they founded this joint. It’s simply a small white building with a few plastic cloth-covered tables, a basic menu with all of the standard Mexican dishes you would imagine, those cloudy red plastic cups I always associate with a pizzeria, and a backroom with a TV playing a daytime drama where a small group of people (might have been a family) gathered with young children when they weren’t out in the main room serving us. As I sipped my diet cola, I wondered who out of the group might be THE Jenny that the restaurant was named after, but before I could determine whom she might be, I was served my plate of chicken tacos.
Now before we go on, we should clarify what we mean when we say taco. Prior to this trip, Luke and I understood tacos to be of the hard-shelled, out of a yellow box sort, where you mix a packet of “Mexican spices” with your ground beef, shred up some lettuce and dice up some tomatoes. Apparently we have been duped. An authentic taco is so far removed from the yellow box experience we are familiar with that it doesn’t seem fair that both can be called by the same name.
If you are looking for an authentic taco, Jenny is your gal. Think perfectly juicy tender marinated chicken, some sort of magical cilantro and lime concoction, all piled on top of two small soft tortillas, one stacked on top of the other. We came to understand that the double-stacked soft tortilla scenario is standard practice in the world of authentic tacos, and though we aren’t sure exactly what the protocol is for consuming such a taco, we established a system that worked well for us. Divide the chicken mixture in two, and eat one tortilla with half of the chicken before taking down the second one. This makes you feel like you are getting twice as many tacos for your hard earned buck AND it decreases the juicy mess you might encounter if you tried to stuff the entire thing in your mouth all in one go. A win-win.
Still can’t quite imagine what Jenny’s Mexican is really like? Here’s an image we drafted up in Photoshop… hope this clears things up! If you are ever driving to Colorado from Kansas, promise me you will print out this image, and use it as your guide when you go searching for Jenny’s Mexican. You will not regret it.
#1 Gallo Blanco Café and Bar, Phoenix Arizona
Phoenix, I am sorry to say, was not our favourite destination. Now before you start writing us an angry email about why we need to reconsider our feelings for this desert city, we arrived in Phoenix during just about the worst heat wave you could imagine, which put a serious damper on our ability to properly take in the city. However, we found respite from the heat numerous times in the comfy yet industrial cafe attached to The Clarendon, our amazing retrofit hotel, and I’m confident when I say that our love for this establishment was not just an affect of the blistering sun frying our good sensibilities.
Gallo Blanco Café and Bar left us with such good impressions and satisfied stomachs that it will be the reason we return to Phoenix one day. That’s a bold statement, I know. But I can say it with conviction based solely on the amount of times Luke or I bring up either their amazing cocktails (the “Madre” is to die for), the incredible prices, or most impressive of all – their a la carte tacos!
Now Gallo Blanco tacos are not quite as rustic or perhaps authentic as at Jenny’s Mexican, but the unique way they present the tacos in metal accordion-shaped holders is both novel and delightful. You can order as many tacos as you can handle, and mix and match the types that you want (kind of like when you order sushi). Luke and I ordered two Eco-friendly Fish, two Cochinitas, and two Carne Asada Beefs, and they all came out on the same tray. All of that said, Gallo Blanco did not win our first place spot because of presentation. No, this win was all in the flavour!
Take the Cochinita taco – they use local pork, which is marinated slow braised in Achiote, orange, garlic and Guajillo – now I’m maybe not the best person to explain what all of this actually means, but I did eat it, and so I can tell you that this exotic description does add up to deliciousness. My personal favourite was their Eco-friendly Fish tacos, which used the most mouthwatering tender fish and were finished with iceberg lettuce, pico de gallo and guacamole. They were absolutely a delight to my senses… unlike those sketchy, stinky, mayonnaise-drenched fish tacos I have encountered all too often – you know the ones – yuck. No, these were everything you cross your fingers and hope for when you place an order for fish tacos – yum.
If you find yourself in Phoenix in the near future, put on some sunscreen, and go find Gallo Blanco at The Clarendon Hotel. Breakfast, lunch, happy hour, dinner or cocktails, you cannot go wrong.