WHEN I WAS A KID GROWING UP IN AUSTIN in the fifties and sixties, the regulation Texas taco was a single-sized, hard-fried corn tortilla shaped by machine into the form of a U. This was called a crispy taco. Filled with ground beef and topped with a confetti of chopped tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce, and grated yellow cheese, the thing was redolent of that exotic spice, McCormick’s taco seasoning. It could also be counted on to explode onto your shirtfront the instant you bit into it. Nostalgia aside, the image is seared into my memory like a bad dream.
Today, thanks to an influx of our neighbors to the South, Texas tacos are all over the map. They can be crispy or soft, fried in fat or heated on a griddle. They can be flat, folded, or even rolled, depending on who’s doing the cooking. They can be made with corn or flour tortillas, and they can be minuscule or monstrous. And the fillings—ohmigod. Basically anything that you can stuff or spoon in is fine and dandy: fajita meat, roast pork, steak, stewed chicken, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, fried fish, shrimp, and avocado. And those are just the usual ones. If you screw your courage to the sticking place and visit some of the more authentic taquerías in our fair state, you can feast on cactus pad, octopus, tongue, tripe, and brains.
It has been two decades since Texas Monthly published “The Great Texas Taco Tour,” in April 1986. So it seemed like a good idea, not to mention high time, to do a follow-up. We began by assembling Team Taco, a foolhardy band of five food writers who agreed to turn themselves into human guinea pigs (or maybe just pigs) in the interest of culinary research. We combed this magazine’s stories and pestered friends, family, and random strangers for tips on favorite tacos. Then, list in hand, we each took one or more major cities (plus a few smaller ones in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas) and hit the road.
Three months and 532 tacos later, we evaluated our results. Herewith are the best that Texas has to offer, ranked from 1 to 63. If you can’t find something on the list that makes your mouth water, you may have to face the ugly truth that you’re a closet tacophobe. But just as the U.S. census is more than a population tally, our list is more than a Baedeker. It is a testament to how Texas has changed. Exotic tacos that existed only in primarily Hispanic areas have spread far and wide, and those that were unheard of are now merely unusual. The iconic taco of my childhood has morphed into a savory multitude. A mere 170 years ago, Texas was part of Mexico. Today, if you believe your eyes, ears, and palate, it’s headed that way again.
Fuel City | Dallas
When friends carry on endlessly about driving at all hours of the day or night to eat at a combination convenience store, drive-through beer shop, and truck stop, we pay attention. Good thing, too, because the tacos at this joint are simply out of this world. Orders are placed at the taco-stand window at the northern end of the store, and whether you pull up at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., you’ll find folks sitting in their cars, gobbling from little carryout boxes. Tops is the picadillo, ground beef with bits of potato seasoned with a dab of garlic and a lot of black pepper. It’s tucked into a double layer of small white-corn tortillas and topped with chopped onion and cilantro. A wedge of Mexican lime comes on the side. The tiny container of green chile salsa is both superfluous and irresistible. (It goes just as well on the amazingly tender beef fajita taco, another good option.) Sitting in the shadows of downtown among strip clubs and liquor stores, Fuel City isn’t in the prettiest part of Dallas, but the gorgeous bikini-clad chicas lounging beside the landscaped swimming pool behind the wrought-iron gates certainly add to the scenery. Funny, though: It doesn’t appear as if they’ve eaten many of these tacos. 801 S. Industrial Blvd., 214-426-0011.
Open 24 hours.
Rosario’s | San Antonio
The cilantro-cabbage slaw, chipotle mayo, and sliced avocado are so good they would make a fine veggie taco all by themselves. But the fresh, lightly grilled tilapia sprinkled with grated jack cheese brings the creation full circle. Lime juice has obviously been applied too, giving a zing that raises this fish taco far above the norm. (The shrimp version, by the way, comes similarly garnished.) The finishing touch is a dollop of superlative table salsa made from charred jalapeños. The best time to visit this big, persimmon-hued storefront cafe is any time except for the boisterous lunch and dinner rush hours. Or fight fire with fire: Order a margarita and get a little boisterous yourself. 910 S. Alamo, 210-223-1806. Open Mon 11—3, Tue—Fri 11—10, Sat 11—11. Closed Sun.
100 Percent Taquito | Houston
Sure, it’s a gimmick—constructing a relatively authentic, full-size “taco trailer” inside an air-conditioned, upscale establishment. But it’s hard to argue with success, and 100 Percent Taquito has been 100 percent on target in appealing to an impressive range of patrons, from blue-collar types to pseudo-slumming yuppies. The accommodating menu, with its wealth of small, reasonably priced items, allows a frenzy of à la carte ordering. Chief among near equals is the taco de tinga, a deceptively simple serving of shredded brisket that has been cooked through and through with chi-potle peppers. A delicious burn builds slowly until your whole mouth is tinga-ling and an ice-cold Bohemia isn’t just a good idea, it’s salvation. 3245 Southwest Fwy. ( U.S. 59), 713-665-2900. Open Sun—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11.
4. Lamb Barbacoa
Sason Sabor Autentico | Dallas
A study in ultramodern design, done in black and white with splashes of muted lime green, Sason seems as though it would be more at home