From traditional to exotic, here’s where to find them.
By Joanna O’Leary
As she wept over her taco, wrote no one, ever.
What is it about a great taco that can bring light to even our darkest hours? It could be the contents (whether simple or complex), the crunch of the hard shell, or the yielding, soft dough of the tortilla. In any case, tacos are perfect for any time of day, as Houstonians well know—given our propensity to consume them at all hours. For aficionados looking for noteworthy traditional tacos, and for those up to seeking out something more adventurous, here is a sampling of the most distinctive versions on offer at H-Town restaurants, taquerias, and food trucks.
Sometimes a giant menu can be a warning sign that a restaurant is a jack of all trades and master of none. One exception is the El Tiempo outpost on Navigation that manages to turn out dozens of Tex-Mex dishes par excellence, so the choices can easily paralyze the indecisive diner. The solution? Order the tacos amante diablos, a divine porcine-meets-prawn collaboration in the form of three corn tacos loaded with bacon-wrapped shrimp, spicy chipotle mayo, and crisp shredded cabbage. Nose-to-tail enthusiasts will appreciate the beef sweetbread tacos garnished with peppers, onions, and tomatoes, whose mild heat readily complements the gamey undertones of the organ meat.
Continue your taco crawl by heading just across the street to The Original Ninfa’s, where a large mounted portrait of Mama Ninfa bestows blessings on all who enter to binge on one of her many signature dishes. The tacos al carbon includes your choice of marinated strips of fajita chicken or beef, pico de gallo, and chili con queso—all ensconced in oversized thick white flour tortillas that are hand-rolled in front of you as you wait for your table. Head chef Alex Padilla can execute not only the crowd-pleasers, but also less mainstream regional Mexican foodstuffs. (For example, his rabbit adobo features nutty, smoky hare flesh that is well-matched with accompaniments of garbanzo bean puree and guajillo sauce made bold via blistered ancho peppers.)
At Tacos A Go Go, I go gaga over fusion creations like the chicken tikka masala tacos— naan bread (instead of tortillas) holding pieces of juicy roasted white meat chicken bathed in a tomato curry, and drizzled with crème fraiche. The chicken-fried oyster tacos dressed in buttermilk ranch, celery root slaw, frank’s red hot—a piquant, briney hat-tip to the Southern classic.
Liberty Tacos also boasts some unorthodox but popular internationally inflected options such as the “Thai Basil” stir-fried chicken in the eponymous sauce, red cabbage, and rooster crema. Roosters of a different sort gravitate toward their extremely solid breakfast tacos—Texas brisket with egg and cheese, the antidote to any hangover or ample fuel for a long morning.
Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega’s Xochi is well-known for its moles, tacos de cabrito (braised goat so tender it dissolves in your mouth), salsa verde, and avocado purée encased in blue corn tortillas, all of which embody the perfect intersection of simple ingredients and sophisticated preparation. Head over to Ortega’s original restaurant, Hugo’s, for the dainty, delicious taquita de langosta, a mignon house-made tortilla stack with buttery tail-and-claw meat, a refreshing chunky tomato salsa, and sliced avocado.
There are dozens of taco trucks in Houston, but at the end of the day (and night, most often), it just comes down to Tacos Tierra Caliente, an institution that is beloved for its cheap, no-frills pork, chicken, barbacoa, and beef fajita soft tacos smothered with as much red or green salsa as you can handle. The truck is most often parked adjacent to the Alabama Ice House, making it the perfect nosh for an evening of kibbitzing over multiple rounds of St. Arnold’s.
For another terrific moveable taco feast, track down Coreanos, one of the pioneers of the Korean taco in Houston. Its competitors’ numerous copycat versions can’t hold a candle to Coreanos’ standard barbecue tacos stuffed with your choice of bulgogi, halal chicken, or tofu. Mandatory optional ingredients (oxymoron intentional) include kimchi, a fried egg, and cheese.
Even at TacoDeli, where arguably most every taco is mighty fine, there’s a hierarchy. Highly ranked is the “Delibelly,” which will have you going “Mmm, mmm, mmm” all the way home, so supremely delicious are its fillings of unctuous pork belly, honey tomatillo-serrano salsa, cilantro, tangy onion, and supple slices of avocado. But if it’s a Meatless Monday, never fear, for the “Space Cowboy” taco is here. Its stuffing of smoky roasted portobello mushrooms, sweet caramelized onions, peppers, queso fresco, guacamole, and earthy grilled corn will distract even the most devout carnivores.
With this guide in hand, all you’ll need are some napkins (usually provided, natch) to make your grand tour of Houston’s taco terrain.
This article appears in the May 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.