As we creep slowly into the twilight of the pandemic, live events have made a raucous return. Especially popular are outdoor events, including the Taco Fest Music y Más held last weekend at Travis Park in downtown San Antonio. Although temperatures neared triple digits and there were issues with the credit card systems, the shindig seemed to be a success. And the lineup of participating taquerias was no small part of it. Local food trucks and taco shops were slinging two-dollar tacos as well as specialty selections. Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que from Brownsville—a rare out-of-town vendor—was doling out its famous barbacoa tacos for free. Those tacos and the several others listed below were my favorites of the day.
Barbacoa Taco, Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que
Armando “Mando” Vera is the last of the great South Texas barbacoyeros (barbacoa masters), and the man rarely leaves the comfort of his Brownsville restaurant, Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que. At his 67-year-old business on Southmost Boulevard, Vera crafts South Texas–style barbacoa de cabeza de res (beef head barbacoa) in the traditional pit-cooked manner. Vera’s is the only restaurant in the state currently permitted to do so. Somehow, the organizers of Taco Fest persuaded Vera to leave Brownsville for a special appearance at the festival, and he didn’t disappoint. The slightly smoky mixed beef tacos were luscious and amazing, as always. I finished them in two bites. I especially relished the opportunity to interview Vera on the La Cocina stage, which also hosted chef demos and a debate on the merits of San Antonio’s tacos versus Austin’s moderated by Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles Times columnist and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Guess which city won the matchup?
Carnitas Taco, Carnitas Don Raúl
The San Antonio outpost of the Morelia, Mexico, carnitas spot made famous by Netflix’s Taco Chronicles once again impressed with its knockout pork tacos. The bits of meat were pulled from the traditional carnitas cooking apparatus, a copper kettle called a cazo, which is filled with bubbling lard. The meat was chopped on a large wooden block and tucked into folded double-ply tortillas. The filling shimmered in the sunlight, and the texture was silky or chewy depending on the cut of pork in the mix. The flavor was pleasantly salty with a touch of sweetness. That combination was enough to earn Carnitas Don Raúl a second-place finish in the traditional taco category of the judged competition.
Discada Taco, Tu Asador
Several years ago, tacos de discada weren’t available at many restaurants—they were more of a backyard specialty, with bits of ground beef, sausage, bacon, and other proteins mixed with vegetables like onions and carrots and cooked in a large, round, shallow disco. The cooking process is often tended by men who gather around the appliance with a lot of beer. Now the discada taco seems ubiquitous—and Texas is better for it. Tu Asador‘s is among the best I’ve had too. True to its origins, Tu Asador’s taco was a homey taste of Mexican soul food. I could’ve had five, but there were still more tacos to enjoy.
Smoked Creamed Corn Taco, Stix & Stone
Stix & Stone, an Asian–Mexican American taqueria in San Antonio, is a standout, if only for its barbacoa and Big Red taco flight in which nixtamalized tortillas are infused with Big Red soda and filled with rich, shredded beef cheek. Although owner Leo Davila didn’t serve those at Taco Fest, he did offer attendees another stunner: a nixtamalized blue corn tortilla bearing a smear of earthy salsa macha; a ladle of chunky, freshly smoked creamed corn; and a heavy drizzle of creamy, spicy salsa verde topped with pickled red onions. The briny onions helped cut the heat provided by the other fillings, but thankfully not by much.
Mini Tacos, Plantaqueria
Plantaqueria‘s plant-based carne asada and alambres were my “healthy” options of the day. The alambres—typically a mixed-meat dish held together by a net of melted cheese—added vegan cheese to the “meat.” The “dairy” was barely noticeable. Still, the flavor was pleasant and made me feel good about the other tacos I’d consumed throughout the day. I gobbled them up quickly and happily.
Taco al Pastor, Tacos El Guero Loko
The iconic Mexico City taco was cooked on-site on a traditional trompo. The pork, however, didn’t bear the orangey red color imparted by the marinated and usually seen throughout the Mexican capital and across Texas. Tacos El Guero Loko‘s al pastor was lightly seasoned, giving the final product a brown hue with streaks of char. This preparation was an attractive variation from the standard. The line of San Antonians patiently waiting for a taste was further confirmation of the taco’s popularity.