As if the nation needed another source of division, Foursquare has provided one with its list of consumers’ favorite taco places, a matter as potentially inflammatory as discussing who has the cuter baby. An analysis of where users of the social media platform were eating, coupled with their ratings and comments, yielded a ranking of 50 concepts, none of which was Taco Bell. Nor Chipotle, Del Taco, Rubio’s, Taco Bueno or the other mass-market leaders. Yet Waffle House is on the list. Go figure.
Here are the top 20 taco places on Foursquare’s list, along with RB’s analysis of why they muster passion among taco lovers.
1. Torchy’s Tacos, multiple locations
So Torchy’s sports a secret menu. Big deal. What quick-service chain doesn’t these days?
Showcasing a Taco of the Month sounds equally eye-glazing. Ditto for sporting a breakfast menu and making the place family friendly, even with a bar.
It could all be dismissed as me-too if it weren’t for the fanatical fans who all but dance naked around a bonfire while chanting the menu. Like In-N-Out, Chick-fil-A and the Chipotle of yesteryear, the fast-casual concept enjoys more of a cult following than merely a sizable clientele. They’ve driven sales per store above the $1 million mark, according to Technomic estimates, and that’s largely through word-of-mouth.
So what’s the magic? Like its hometown of Austin, Texas, Torchy’s is proudly weird. This month’s special taco, for instance, is The Big Pilgrim: not just a turkey taco, but one that features turkey deep-fried Cajun style and garnished with sweet potato puree, dressing and chipotle-ranch sauce.
The everyday menu sports such equally Taco Bell-meets-stoner taco variations as The Trailer Park (fried chicken and poblano sauce) and Fried Avocado, a signature. The nine breakfast tacos include a migas variety. Inexpensive drinks ($5 specialty margaritas on the day we visited) appear to be a big part of the draw for dine-in patrons.
Hardcore patrons say the real point of difference is the execution. Fresh ingredients currently in vogue are blended to deliver flavors that fuse well. “Humanity has maxed out its taco capabilities with Torchy's,” said Foursquare user Daniel Barnett. “It's scientifically and physically impossible to make a better taco.”
2. Paco’s Tacos & Tequila; Charlotte, N.C.
While Torchy’s might veer far from taco tradition, Paco’s touts itself as a real taste of Texas, even with such nods to the trends as fish and brisket variations. Among the attractions of the full-service independent is a wood-fired grill and a bar featuring 100 tequilas, local beers and brews shipped in from Texas and Mexico. Paco’s signature taco appears to be the Chicken Milanesa, made with fried chicken, avocado and a flavor mashup that appears repeatedly on the Foursquare list: chipotle-ranch dressing.
3. Los Tacos No.1, New York City
Only four types of tacos appear on the menu of what fervent fans insist is New York City’s best taqueria, this station in Chelsea Market, one of the nation’s first food halls. Clearly, Los Tacos No.1 is counting on authenticity as a point of difference, as underscored by one of the options, the Nopal, a cactus taco. The outlet was the brainchild of three New Yorkers transplanted from Tijuana, Mexico, and Brawley, Calif. The taco's prices range from $3.25 (the Nopal) to $3.75 (the Carne Asada).
Fans get weepy when talking about the tortillas used for the tacos, noting that the wrappings are handmade.
4. Chilo’s; Brooklyn, N.Y.
When did New York City become such a hot taco town? Its second outpost among the nation’s top five taco joints is this two-in-one, a taco truck and fixed bar that share a location and the Chilo’s name. The tacos and tostadas range from the standards (chicken and carnitas) to such exotics as nopales (cactus), smoked beef, huitlacoche (blue corn fungus) and duck. The array is grouped into five pricing tiers, from $3 to $5.
Among the signatures is a “pico back,” a riff on picklebacks, the drink combos that combine a shot with a back of pickle juice. In Chilo’s version, a pico de gallo and water neutralizer is paired with tequila.
5. Guisados, multiple Los Angeles locations
The Americanization of tacos is reversed at this Los Angeles tribute to Mexican home cooking. Guisados, small “g”, are slow-braised, stewlike mixtures served with rice, beans and warm tortillas. The various Guisados locations provide beef, chicken, pork and vegetable braises on a tortilla for $2.75 each. Seafood versions are priced at $3. Foursquare fans praise a mini-taco sampler as the best deal in the city at $6.99.
The menu is limited to the guisados, but the restaurant offers 16 types. The signature beverages are aquas frescas.
6. Oscars Mexican Seafood, San Diego
The five-unit all-day spot melds Mexican classics with coastal seafood, from its breakfast dishes and ceviches served in plastic cups to the popular tacos. While the menu lists some classic tacos and tortas such as battered fish and skirt steak, citizen reviewers say it’s the smoked fish that really sets Oscars apart. It’s got a smoked fish taco, as well as a taco and a torta that combine the house favorite with shrimp and scallops. Guests can choose from a selection of sauces to customize their meals. “And don’t forget the secret sauce in the drink fridge,” said one reviewer.
7. Carnitas’ Snack Shack, San Diego
Named for the owners’ pet micropig, Carnitas, the Snack Shack offers a pork-centric menu of dishes that appeal to the American palate, from a burger and BLT to a pork belly appetizer and, of course, carnitas tacos and tortas. The self-dubbed “fast-casual porkhouse” is known by regulars for its rotating secret menu items that it shares via Instagram—such as a carnitas hash—as well as its Taco Tuesdays at some locations, offering $5 tacos plus $5 house margaritas and cerveza. Part of the appeal, per some citizen reviewers, is the unsuspecting atmosphere; while it looks a bit like a shack from the front, back patios offer ample seating as well as a back bar with beer on hand, both on tap and in cans.
8. La Taqueria, San Francisco
Located in San Francisco’s Mission District, it’s slinging “hands down the best tacos in SF,” says one online reviewer. And it’s not shy about the quality of its food, touting in its logo that it has “the best tacos & burritos in the whole world.” What sets the concept apart—besides the lack of website—are the two-layer shells that hold the taco fillings: one is soft while the other is crunchy.
But consumers seem to love more than just the tacos as La Taqueria; it was recently named one of the best 50 burritos in the country by The Daily Meal. Too, the neighborhood spot pays tribute to the food’s Mexican roots, adorning walls with photos and paintings of Latino icons and themed art.
9. Cholita Linda; Oakland, Calif.
Touted as a place for Mexican street food favorites, Cholita Linda is known for its stand-alone spot as well as its taco stands at local farmers markets. The brick-and-mortar site has a wider selection of tacos, sandwiches and more compared to the stands, and offers ample outdoor seating in a backyard setting behind the restaurant. Inside, it features a semi-open kitchen, where diners at the wooden tables and chairs can peek at the food-making process.
Citizen reviewers speak highly of the fish and carnitas tacos, offered for $4 each. But it’s not just the food winning guests over. “Their agua frescas are wonderful,” said one review.
10. El Molino Central; Sonoma, Calif.
On the outskirts of Sonoma, Calif., in Boyes Hot Springs, this brightly painted counter-service spot offers a menu driven by local ingredients that includes tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and, of course, tacos. While the menu lists some traditional variations of the Mexican classics, it also has some less common offerings, such as an octopus tostada and a lamb taco. What’s really grabbed the local media’s attention, though, is the masa: For its housemade tortillas as well as its tamales and chips, the restaurant stone-grinds corn in-house daily. Mostly a takeout concept, El Molino Central—located in a former coffeehouse—has few seats inside with an additional few tables on a back patio.
11. Tacodeli; Austin, Texas
This Lone Star State taco spot has gained clout among die-hards for its extra-spicy Dona salsa—a jalapeno- and garlic-based condiment created by one of the concept’s cooks in 1999. Tacodeli's breakfast tacos—particularly its Jess Special—are popular among Austinites angling for morning eats, according to Foursquare fans of the restaurant, which has six (soon to be seven) locations.
13. Bien Trucha; Geneva, Ill.
Several online fans noted that this Mexican concept in a suburb west of Chicago is worth its often lengthy wait. The margaritas, which the restaurant says are made to order, are a big selling point. Bien Trucha also offers burrito specials at lunch Tuesday through Saturday via its “Lil Donkeys” menu.
14. Waffle House; Humble, Texas
A surprise entry on this list, to be sure, as Waffle House might be better known for its, well, waffles. But the chain’s Humble, Texas, location also garners praise for its taco prowess, with several online reviewers noting the unit’s customer service as being a standout, and one declaring the restaurant home to the “best barbacoa in Houston.”
15. Mas Tacos Por Favor, Nashville
The consensus among Foursquare users is that this “little hole in the wall” (according to one reviewer) boasts big flavor, listing its elotes, sweet plantains and chicken tortilla soup as don’t-miss menu items. The concept, which got its start as a food truck, went brick and mortar in 2010.
16. The Velvet Taco, Dallas
Catering to the late-night crowd, The Velvet Taco’s Dallas location is open until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 4 a.m. on weekends. The chain’s menu focuses on made-from-scratch tacos and sides with a global influence. Menu items include red curry coconut queso and the Middle Eastern-inspired falafel taco. The Velvet Taco offers a “WTF” Weekly Taco Feature where a new gourmet taco is offered every week for a limited time, as well as backdoor chicken to go, where customers can get a whole rotisserie chicken, two side of elote corn, six corn tortillas and roasted corn pico de gallo for $20. Customers can also top their meal off with a slice of red velvet cake.
17. Tacombi at Fonda Nolita, New York City
Originally serving food out of a VW bus in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, Tacombi has since moved north and opened its flagship location, Fonda Nolita, in New York City in 2010. Its menu features a variety of cocktails, beer and homemade juices as well as authentic tacos and sides, all of which are ethically sourced and free of antibiotics, hormones and additives. As an ode to its roots, customers still place their order at a refurbished VW bus located inside the restaurant.
18. Tacoway Beach, New York City
Open during the spring and summer, Tacoway Beach, located in the Rockaway Beach Surf Club in New York City, offers customers a choice of three tacos—fish, chorizo and tofu—as well as side options such as plantains and guacamole, "cukes" and fresh juice. The taqueria also offers breakfast on the weekends from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., which consists of a rotating menu featuring breakfast burritos, granola bars and coffee. Although Tacoway doesn’t serve alcohol, customers looking for a beer or margarita to go with their meal can grab one at the bar located next door.
19. Edgar's Best Tacos, Pittsburgh
Edgar’s Best Tacos is a cash-only taco stand located in Pittsburgh. For $5, customers can receive their choice of two freshly made tacos, which can topped with a variety of salsas at the stand’s salsa bar. Edgar’s also serves other traditional Mexican fare such as quesadillas, empanadas and burritos. Customers can pair their meals with freshly squeezed juice, or warm up with Mexican hot chocolate during the winter.
20. Hankook Taqueria, Atlanta
Korean barbecue meets Mexican cuisine at Hankook Taqueria in Atlanta. The taqueria originally started as a food truck catering to students at Georgia Tech, but has since opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Hankook’s menu centers on a mix of street snacks such as sesame fries and gogi nachos, as well as Korean barbecue tacos and burritos filled with fish, shrimp, pork, tofu, chicken or beef.