I have been eating tacos every day for the past five months. All to prepare for this moment.
Ladies, gentleman and germs: I am about to reveal to you the ten best tacos in Tucson. This is not your regular "best of" list. In the course of this project, I have technically eaten 100 Tacos, but in reality I have eaten more than twice that much. You can say, I've done my homework.
This collection represents the best Tucson has to offer, from street food to gourmet restaurants, the traditional and the fusion. Every single taco on this list was one that I previously wrote about during my 100 Days of Tacos project, no newbies. So if I missed your best taco, I'm sorry for that. I also tried to represent all of the varieties in town, but in the end I had to go with my gut.
I stand by every single one of these choices. I recommend them to locals, to visitors from Wisconsin, to food snobs and to people who eat Lean Cuisine in the dark. I encourage every single one of you to visit these establishments and to eat.
These tacos made me laugh, these tacos made my cry, these tacos made me full, and many of them even made me hungry!
This is Tucson's OG taco, which dates back to at least the '70s and probably much longer. It's basically a hamburger smacked into a tortilla and then fried up and topped with lettuce and cheese.
I must have tasted half a dozen of these during my project, and the beef patty tacos at Micha's are my favorite. The hamburger was cooked to a perfect medium rare and the tortilla was just thick enough to give you that beautiful crunch when you bite in. Not too greasy, just greasy enough.
*** (We're gonna keep it positive here by listing a "Thou Shalt" with every taco, rather than "thou shalt not." This is a guideline that all of us taco lovers should strive for. It's what these tacos do right.)
THOU SHALT: Skip the Cotija and use shredded yellow cheese of indistinguishable variety. Hey, when else can you say that? It just tastes right.
I ate this one during a recent Exotic Taco Wednesdays. It's python from a farm in Vietnam. Chef Maria Mazon chopped it up, and then simmered it in a stew of sweet chipotle tamarind sauce that tasted like Asian marinade.
This is no biggie for her campus-area restaurant Boca Tacos y Tequila. She is continuously pushing the envelope and staying a leg ahead of everyone else in town (two metaphors in one sentence!). And all, at casual prices.
To be honest, Boca would probably have been a lot higher on this list. But as it turns out, python tastes kinda weird!
THOU SHALT: Go crazy with your salsas. On this particular visit she was offering roasted bell pepper salsa, basil salsa, hoisin chipotle salsa, chile morita cilantro oil and honey wasabi!
This is the best taco I've ever eaten at a gas station. (And one of the best tacos I've had in my lifetime.) Guaymas native Leticia Ramirez runs this cute little restaurant Papa Locos inside the Rita Ranch Market on the southeast side. And she makes some of the best salsas in town.
This taco doesn't feature the best most expensive type of fish. It's just tilapia, but I love that she cuts it into chunks and sautees them up so that every piece gets a soft center and a little crunch on the outside.
THOU SHALT: Chop up some jalapeños and marinate them in soy sauce. The fire and the salt make a feisty combo.
This taco is proof that healthy food can taste good, even inside whole wheat tortillas. (It helps that these are made at Tucson's Alejandro's Tortilla Factory.) Goodness' tofu taco is the most complex taco I've had, and also the biggest surprise of the journey.
I had no idea that teriyaki tofu could taste so delicious with avocado and Greek yogurt, but it's true. Don't believe me? You eat 100 tacos!
THOU SHALT: If your taco tastes kinda like a salad, put pumpkin seeds on it. They add a nice crunch.
It's the one on the right, with the big fat bulb of fried avocado. It's tough to describe the flavor of this masterpiece without falling into pornographic language, so I'll just have to approximate.
This hot crispy mass of custardy ambrosia was one of the most beautiful things I've ever put in my mouth. It was so delicious that the fresh corn tortilla, made from scratch down to the nixtamal, was almost an afterthought.
This #6 spot was a tight race between Seis and Penca, which both seem to occupy the same spot in my mind. But in the end, the turkey came up short. A true west coaster will always choose an avocado over the finest fowl, even right before Thanksgiving.
THOU SHALT: Use Mexican beer in the batter and fry that stuff up like a big ol' shrimp!
This is the highest fusion taco on the list and one of the best I have ever laid my mouth on. I admit, much of this has to do with butter.
That's what those corn tortillas are fried in, just long enough so they're hot and heavy, but not crispy. Then Brushfire puts in the barbecued meats, whatever you want. I chose meatloaf ... I have never made meatloaf at home but if I ever do, there will be tortillas close by. Not vegetables.
THOU SHALT: Smoke that meat on a mixture of mesquite and pecan wood. It adds a lovely flavor of earth to the finished product.
I ate this taco in 110-degree heat. (So basically, during June.) The taco burned my fingers, and the salsas were really freaking spicy. When I got back to the office, my face looked like a freshly-washed raspberry.
Eating the taco a la plancha at Tacontento was one of the best experiences I had all summer. It's not very big, but it's a powerful kick of spiced birria beef in a sizzling tortilla. The salsas in the little steel container were top notch. Plus, Eduardo Chumacera is one of the nicest guys in the world, and makes everyone feel at home, no matter the place or the temperature.
This truck is on hiatus right now, but I had to include it because it's just really that great. Hopefully it will be back in the next few months.
THOU SHALT: Get well soon and come back to your spot at Park and Irvington. The staff at the Arizona Daily Star misses you!
If Tucson could cuddle, it would probably feel something like this. Soft roasted beef in a velvety red chile sauce, on a thick warm flour tortilla. When done right, like here, it is intensely familiar, and it is of another realm.
I happened upon this northside truck Angela's while I was driving down the road. I had just eaten across the street at Gringo Grill, where the tacos come in steel holders. This spot has a relaxed peaceful vibe, parked right next door to a plant nursery. It hadn't been recommended to me, maybe because it doesn't seem too much like a destination spot.
I guess that's why I like it. And really, it blew me away.
THOU SHALT: Carry awesome flour tortillas from La Palma down the street. Great tortillas, great red chile. You don't even need any salsa.
It's a taco, it's a quesadilla, it's a-mazing! Can we just leave it at that? The best of both worlds is at the mariscos truck La Palma on 22nd and South Sixth Ave.
Everything about this taco is perfect: the beautiful battered shrimp and the supple melted mozzarella. The burrito-sized tortilla, folded just loose enough that the ingredients hug each other but retain their own wonderful flavors.
I know some people are worried about seafood in the desert, but I went inside of this truck and it's one of the cleanest kitchens I've ever been in. I also had ceviche, and even though my stomach is often sensitive to shellfish, I felt amazing afterward. Props to these guys. They're rocking it!
THOU SHALT: Employ your whole family like these guys do to work the truck. That's some real teamwork.
Diego Armando is from Hermosillo, home of the Percheron. The name means Clydesdale, because the taco is pretty darn big. At his South 12th truck What a Burro, the Percheron features a huge pile of carne asada, pico, roasted green chile, two slices of ripe avocado and melted mozzarella cheese that falls off the edge and gets cooked to a crisp on the flattop. It is large, but it is in no way messy. It's sublime.
A Percheron can also be a burrito, which is fitting because What a Burro is actually more of a burrito stand. But so what, this is America! A burrito place can make the best taco in Tucson. I am sure of it, because I went back three times. And even that doesn't seem like nearly enough. Have you been?
THOU SHALT: Put buttery ripe avocado on top of carne asada. Not many places seem to be doing this, but it pushes it into another dimension. Powerhouse!