If there is a taco capital of Texas, it’s arguably San Antonio. As we gear up for our December cover story on the best tacos in the state, come along with us for an eclectic preview of what the Alamo City has to offer. We gleaned numerous recommendations and hit the road, eating more than our fair share of tacos across San Antonio—mostly inside Loop 1604—from scrappy new joints to hallowed institutions. The research is far from complete, but you can tide yourselves over with these must-haves. So why all this taco tasting madness? Not that there really needs to be a reason to want to eat all the tacos, but Texas Monthly is beginning its research on finding the best tacos across the state, a list we’ll publish at the end of the year. Our quest to unearth the top contenders already took us on a taco tour of Austin, where we scouted out more than 100 tacos at taquerias, food trucks, highfalutin joints—well, basically any place were tortillas are slung and filled—and settled on 16 great options from the capital city. We then explored the vast expanse that is DFW and turned our appetites southward to the RGV. This latest list is far from comprehensive, and as we continue our mission to find the best fillings stuffed in a folded tortilla, we ask that you share your recommendations (like we could stop you). We promise to get to them. In the meantime, here are some favorites from San Antonio.
The students at the University of Texas at San Antonio have helped make Chela’s Tacos a food truck must. Parked alongside a global array of trailers serving Colombian, Asian fusion, and American food (humongous burgers in the latter case), Celia and Marty Davis’ fire engine red trailer has brought tacos to the international lineup. From their offerings, we have three favorites. The carne deshebrada (made using shredded flank steak) is vegetable-packed and peppery. The costra del guero is a toasted cheese super-taco(with a layer of cheese fried to mimic a taco shell). But it’s the surprisingly light and heavenly cilantro chicken soft tacos made with breast meat slow cooked with a creamy cilantro-poblano sauce that get our top vote of confidence.
14530 Roadrunner Way, (210 535-7340), Open Tue-Wed 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Thu-Sat 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6-10:30 p.m., Sun 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Thousand Oaks Café
The Northeast side of San Antonio has three locations of this Sunday morning favorite. Opened by El Salvadoran Ana Lizama, who learned to cook Tex-Mex before she mastered her own country’s cuisine, Thousand Oaks draws eaters with its array of breakfast tacos. Though not technically on the taco portion of the menu, the chilaquiles con chorizo taco was a recent favorite. Similar to the chilaquiles verdes, and packed with crisp tortilla strips, shredded mozzarella, and pico de gallo, the taco is a stand-out, thanks to nicely crumbled, nongreasy chorizo. Though the chilaquiles can get a bit soupy, the wallop of flavors makes up for the extra napkins you’ll need.
4334 Thousand Oaks Drive, (210-653-8058), Open Mon-Sat 6 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun 7 a.m.-2 p.m.
La Hacienda de Los Barrios
Chicken Puffy Taco
If Ray Lopez was the king of puffy tacos, then Diana Barrios Treviño is the queen (she succeeds the original queen, her late mother Viola). Sure, all locations of the Los Barrios empire allow eaters to customize their puffy tacos, but why would you when there’s already a clear winner. The chicken puffy tacos start off with chicken breast that have been poached with onion, celery and garlic. Once the meat is finely shredded, it is further simmered in a salsa dulce de tomate, or mild tomato sauce that Barrios likens to salsa ranchera without the peppers. Finally, the delicately flavored meat is placed in one of Los Barrios’ exemplary puffy tacos and delivered ceremoniously to the table. All hail the queen.
18747 Redland, (210-497-8000), Open Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Tacos Dorados Verdes
Five years ago, La Gloria helped bring the culture of Mexican street food to newly established Pearl retail and restaurant complex. The brainchild local chef Johnny Hernandez—West Side bred and a grad of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park—, the restaurant turned Mexican food on its head for most of SA.Many of the dishes that he introduced seemed exotic to a customer base whose idea of “Mexican food” was quite Americanized and always included complimentary tortilla chips and salsa. The menu at La Gloria is broad, but what you want to order is Hernandez’s take on tacos dorados . Filled with tender chicken, folded over and fried, the trio of tacos is doused with a zippy roasted tomatillo salsa, crema, and cotija cheese. They’re so good they will make you forget that $5 charge for chips and salsa.
100 E. Grayson, (210-267-9040), Open Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-midnight
Choose Your Favorite Taco
And enter for a chance to win $100.
Taquitos West Ave.
Parking at Taquitos is as frustrating as playing a game of Tetris, but the payoff is worth it for tacos made to order in an expansive outdoor kitchen. Though the popular taco de trompo, filled with heaps of bright orange porksliced from a vertical rotisserie of the same name, is available only Thursday through Sunday, there are two other stars of the show. The über tender lengua (beef tongue) is delicately peppered, while the rich, salty suadero, a part of the cow found between the belly and hind leg, is thinly sliced, as is customary. Served open-faced with hefty additions of diced raw onion and cilantro, these tacos are especially good if you ask for them “con todo,” for a customizable bite of radish and grilled onion, with lime wedges for squeezing. Luckily, the tortillas are sturdy enough to hold these not-so-tidy bundles of goodness without falling to pieces.
2818 West Ave., (210-525-9888), open daily 10 a.m.-3 a.m.
In a city that holds strongly to tradition and newcomers are often eyed warily, the bar Mezcaleria Mixtli is winning over drinkers and eaters alike with its barbacoa-style braised beef cheek tacos (we’re sure the beacoup varieties of mezcal help). Co-owner Diego Galicia and his staff “let the cheeks shine on their own” with a blend of garlic, onion and a spice mix incorporating ancho and guajillo chiles that adds more flavor than heat. The meat, served in clay bowls, is fragrant and clean, yet intense. The tortillas aren’t made in house—yet—but the standard, lightly toasted ones, sandwiched between blue kitchen towels, suffice.
5313 McCullough Ave. (856-630-5142), Open Sun, Tue-Thu 5 p.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight
El Rafas Café
Breakfast Tacos or Carne Guisada
We think of it as the taco golden hour — the period between 7 and 8:30 a.m. on weekends when El Rafa’s isn’t a madhouse. Otherwise, be prepared to wait. The tiny cafe has earned accolades since 2005 for breakfast tacos that have an almost cultlike following (the chalupas aren’t bad either). Thick, pliable house-made flour tortillas serve as vessels for fluffy eggs, bacon, and other morning staples. If you’re visiting closer to lunchtime,check out the carne guisada, chunky slow-cooked beef. The gravy, thick and flavored with ancho chiles, was peppery and wonderfully free of oil, unlike others =town. Try it with a bit of melty American cheese to round out the flavor.
1535 W Hildebrand Ave., (210-733-5476), Open Mon-Sat 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun 6:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Taqueria Chapala Jalisco
Nopal and Egg
The sprawling hacienda-style building that houses this McCullough Avenue staple is welcome upgrade from the kitschy, dilapidated former Pizza Hut where it made its name. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the menu, thankfully. The breakfast tacos are a must—droves of Beacon Hill dwellers can’t be wrong—thanks to house-made corn tortillas that are sturdy enough to support the inevitably hefty fillings. (We hate to complain about too much food, but honestly, the chilaquiles taco is all but overwhelming.) Instead, get the nopal and egg taco with charred, pickled strips of prickly pear cactus pad blended with fluffy fresh-cracked and scrambled eggs. (Insider tip: avoid the mini-tacos; sadly, those tortillas are subpar.)
1819 McCullough Ave. (210-735-5352), Open daily 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Ray’s Drive Inn
Many have tried their hand at making puffy tacos, but few if any do them better than Ray’s Drive Inn, which has a 60-year legacy to prove it. You must get in the spirit of this Westside institution, with oldies on the sound system and religious prints hanging on just about every surface. Now operated by Ray’s son Arturo Lopez, the shop’s puffy tacos have remained as great as ever. The exterior of the signature air-puffed taco is soft and crisp, yet still powerful enough to hold the taco fillings without collapsing into a soggy mess. The old-school filling of picadillo (seasoned ground beef) with diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce is still enticing, but we actually prefer Ray’s fine and smooth house guacamole lets the flavor of the tortilla shine through and it keeps the whole thing from exploding when you take that first bite. Plus, it’ll leave you feeling less stuffed than a meat-filled taco, so there’s room for two.
822 SW 19th St. (210-432-7171), Open daily 10 a.m.-11:15 p.m.
Tacos Regios #2
We’re not trying to lead you astray, but everybody knows that some excellent tacos come out at night along the nightclub-ridden North St. Mary’s strip. A visit to Tacos Regios #2, the newly renovated mustard-yellow food truck that’s been parked outside Hardbodies Ladies Club for the last eight years, is almost a rite of passage for sober and drunken guests alike. It delivers speedy service even as rowdy bar-goers threaten to storm its the doors. The mini tacos, four to an order, are assembled on the spot. We think the best bet is the carne asada, grilled beefwith diced onions, coarsely chopped cilantro, an avocado slice, and crumbled queso blanco. Douse it with the house green salsa (tomatillo with and hint of jalapeño) and dig in.
Outside of 2726 N. St. Mary’s St., open 10:30p.m.-3 a.m. daily
Cascabel Mexican Patio
Down the street from neon-lit, always jumping Rosario’s restaurant is more demure Cascabel, but what the tiny establishment lacks in size, decor, or giant margaritas, it makes up for with an assortment of interior Mexican bites. Early birds might hate the opening hours, but the bright choriqueso is worth waiting for, and so is our pick, the machacado a la mexicana. A dried-beef staple of the state of Nuevo Leon (think beef jerky, but more pliable) machaca is brightened and thankfully softened with the addition of fresh tomatoes, jalapeños, onions. Stir it in to scrambled egg and the result is called machacado con huevo. Have it on a corn tortilla, which has the necessary thickness and size. It takes an already good dish to another level.
1000 S. St. Mary’s St., (210-212-6456), Open Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Mini Tacos El Maicol
The number of taco joints arrayed down Culebra is daunting, but relative newcomer El Maicol stood out during May’s Twisted Taco Truck Throwdown, where 35 other tacos were available for sampling within a span of three hours. The bright blue truck, complete with flag and flashing neon sign, can only be found during dinner, so plan accordingly if you want to try its perfectly seasoned tacos al pastor. The lightly toasted wee tortilla almost ditches oil completely, but remains foldable and strong enough to hold the neat fillings. Those seeking more heat can reach for the house red salsa with smoky chile de arbol for an extra kick.
3630 Culebra Road, (210) 391-0433, Open Tues-Sun 6:30 p.m.-midnight
Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant
When we told friends we were writing a guide to local tacos, we were warned repeatedly not to give Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant even more attention—longtime fans don’t want to deal with the resulting lines. But considering that the Garcia family has been making barbecue and Tex-Mex (and combinations of the two) in San Antonio for the past 53 years, we’re confident that the present generation, led by brothers Andrew and John Garcia, can handle yet another wave of taco enthusiasts. Best of the options: succulent fatty (that’s a good word in barbecue parlance) brisket on a thick flour tortilla.
842 Fredericksburg, (210-735-5686), Mon-Sat 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
The Original Donut Shop
Bacon and Egg
Don’t say we didn’t warn you—this longstanding Deco District restaurant has a huge and fierce following. Having stood in its original spot since the 1950s, the Original Donut Shop is known for its strict cash-only rules and its government-like separation of church and state: or in this case, donuts and tacos. Brave either drive-thru on a weekend and be prepared to sit in a line of cars at times 15 deep. You can eat in the cacophonous dining room, of course, but it’s not necessarily more peaceful. The lines inside are also separated by food and you have several seconds to place your order. We advise sticking with the simple bacon and egg breakfast taco on a fresh flour tortilla made by hand by a hard-working line of women alongside the cashier counter.
3307 Fredericksburg (210-734-5661), Open Mon-Sat 6 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun 7 a.m.-2 p.m.