Slaves to nostalgia can still find the sort of sloppy Joe fold-overs that passed for tacos 20 years ago, but why bother? The array of cooler choices available from restaurants today is broader than Texas itself and still growing at a rapid clip, as Foursquare’s ranking of the nation’s favorite taco joints attests. Here are some of the new trends in tacos that came to light in the rankings, which we examined in detail on Tuesday.
Secret menus have become a universally known way of making restaurant regulars feel special and insider-y. Restaurants specializing in tacos haven’t been oblivious. Indeed, they’ve pushed beyond that now common idea, hatching new confidences that only a few privileged patrons are invited to share.
Chief among them seems to be the availability of secret sauces. Patrons of Oscars Mexican Seafood in San Diego don’t have the opportunity of trying a particular sauce unless someone spills the dope that it’s hidden in the drink cooler (we don’t know what it is, not being cool enough). Customers of Guisados, the Los Angeles-based small chain, have to ask for the special sauce.
Other ingredients are similarly kept under wraps. Bar Ama will make a puffy-shelled piccadillo taco upon request, but patrons have to know it’s available for the asking.
Meanwhile, the formula for secret menus is changing. No longer are they static affairs, but rosters that change as frequently (if not more often) than the standard bill of fare. Velvet Taco, for instance, features what it calls a WTF, which stands not for what a regular web user might think, but for Weekly Taco Feature.
No longer are taco specialists limiting their protein options to chicken, beef, pork and white fish. At Atlanta's Hankook Taqueria, customers can order calamari as the main ingredient. At El Molino Central in Sonoma, Calif., the choices include lamb and octopus. Tacoway Beach in New York City offers tofu, and Velvet Taco will make a taco with falafel balls. America’s favorite taco source, Torchy’s, is featuring Cajun deep-fried turkey.
Even when the protein is a familiar one, it might be prepared in an unfamiliar way. Fried (as opposed to roasted) chicken was offered by a number of the joints on Foursquare’s list. Velvet Taco offers a tikka masala version. Oscars is known for its smoked fish tacos.
Purists would tsk-tsk us for not using the proper name of nopales tacos, a term that’s become more familiar to consumers as places outside the Sun Belt add the cactus-filled fold-overs. The cactus is fried in some instances, and braised or stewed in others. Among its attractions is a cost that often makes the nopales version the least expensive taco on the menu.
Chipotle-ranch dressing: A new staple?
Avocado seemed to rival cotija and queso fresco as the ingredients of the moment for the taquerias on Foursquare’s list. But the standout candidate for sauces was chipotle-flavored ranch dressing. It’s the garnish on the Chicken Milanese, the signature taco at No. 2 finisher Paco’s, as well as the topping on this month’s showcased option at first-place Torchy’s, The Big Pilgrim.
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.