The humble taco has become a global symbol of Mexican cuisine. It incites passion among adherents who search far and wide for the perfect combination of tortilla shell, filling, salsa, and toppings. There is no single correct type of taco. Sure, corn tortillas are the norm in most of Mexico, but families from the north of the country make flour tortillas instead. Fillings range from pork to beef to chicken to huitlacoche — a high-protein corn fungus that the Aztecs considered a delicacy — with moles, salsas, and spices that reflect regional tastes and culinary traditions. Tacos started life as antojitos, or street-food snacks, in the not-to-distant past and entered the American consciousness with the proliferation of fast food tacos thanks to the likes of Taco Bell.
My favorite tacos come from a small taqueria in Mar Vista, California called Tacomiendo. Abuelitas make thick corn tortillas by hand seemingly non-stop in the front window. The meat fillings are cooked perfectly, and each taco comes topped with a grilled whole scallion for extra crunch and bite. Their carnitas tacos are outstanding and have become the yardstick by which I judge other Mexican restaurants. If I could eat no other taco, these would be it.
Unfortunately, carnitas are harder to come by in Champaign–Urbana, so I’ve substituted a different point of comparison instead: tacos al pastor. Al pastor is a Mexican version of schwarma brought to the country by Lebanese immigrants in the 1930s. Pork eventually substituted for lamb, and Mexican spices like guajillo and chipotle complemented or replaced Middle Eastern ones. At some point along the way, pineapple was added to the vertical spit to add acidity and sweetness to the meat, creating the modern-day taco filling.
In the name of science and deliciousness, I spent some time sampling tacos al pastor around town. To make the comparisons fair, I stuck with Mexican-style tacos: topped with cilantro and onion — and nothing else. I judged each one on the characteristics of the tortillas, filling, and value for money. Where should you go for tacos? Read on to find out.
Maize at The Station
Maize offers two versions of a Mexican-style taco: one adorned with cilantro and onion ($3), and another called a Mexica taco that is the same with the addition of grilled cheese ($3.50). The tacos come on a single, larger sized yellow corn tortilla. The tortilla itself is unremarkable; it is soft and flavorful but a bit gummy, which helps it hold up to the ample filling in this hefty taco. The meat is porky and smoky with a hint of spice and a bit of sweetness from the marinade. It comes without pineapple added, but the pastor meat is tender and juicy. The taco holds up while biting into it with the right amount of cilantro and onion for a well-balanced dish. The smoky sauce that comes with the appetizer tortilla chips is a delicious addition for some extra flavor.
The tortilla on the Mexica taco comes with a layer of white Mexican-style cheese, grilled to a brown crisp. The cheese adds a pronounced saltiness to the taco that takes over the flavor profile; it became hard to pick out the smokiness and subtle sweetness of the filling when eating a full bite. But for those who like salt more than spice, the Mexica taco is a good choice. Both tacos are a good value for the money — two make for a medium-sized meal. Wash them down with a tamarind margarita for a full adventure in flavor.
Maize at The Station
100 N. Chestnut St.
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Located in the multi-ethnic shopping center north of downtown Urbana, La Mixteca is a relative newcomer to the Champaign–Urbana Mexican scene. Tacos al pastor here are also a good value for the money ($2.50) with lots of grilled meat to make a substantial meal. The meat is pleasantly spicy but somehow lacked a complex flavor. It is smoky and dry, suggesting too much time spent on the grill. Pineapple is mixed in which gives a sweet and juicy touch to the otherwise plain filling. A squeeze of lime is also necessary to add some moisture back into the dish. The tacos come on two full-sized tortillas giving them heft and integrity. A meal here comes with chips and homemade salsa; use the salsa to add even more flavor, or dip a taco in your friend’s Camarones a la Diabla sauce for even more smoke and spice.
510 N. Cunningham Ave.
Su-Th 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F + Sa 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Mo’s Burritos Restaurant
Tacos at Mo’s Burritos ($2.06) come street-style with two small tortillas to each one. The al pastor filling here is different from other restaurants on the list: it is saucy and almost tasted like ground chicken rather than pork. The filling here is also mixed with pineapple which is necessary to add some variety to what is otherwise uninspiring flavor. Both the lime wedge and salsa that accompany with the starter chips further help this taco along. The toppings skew heavy on the diced onion, so ask for less if you want a less pungent lunch.
Mo’s may not win with their tacos al pastor, but the carnitas taco is a different story. This style of pork is tender on the inside and crispy on the outside — on par with some of the better carnitas tacos I’ve eaten. A dash of lime wedge adds the perfect amount of acidity. This is a taco I’ve been missing since moving to town.
705 N. Neil St.
11 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily
From the outside, the only hint that there might be a restaurant inside the Champaign location of El Progreso grocery store are the two parked trucks: one near the street and the other in the rear of the lot. The red trucks reveal the the brick-and-mortar location of Tacos Locos whose motto proclaims “Say no to drugs, say yes to tacos.”
The menu at Tacos Locos is more recognizably Mexican than many, with lots of dishes and taco fillings that would be unfamiliar to those who grew up solely on fast food or homemade Old El Paso tacos. The tacos al pastor are supremely flavorful. Bits of fat mix in with the tender, marinated pork while the chiles and the blend of spices create a savory treat. The street-style tacos come on griddled tortillas that were slightly thicker and tastier than some of the other options in town. Everything, from tortilla to meat to topping, is in the right proportions for a pleasing bite down to the last. Each taco is accompanied by a traditional side of cucumber and radish. Add your own salsas from the choices in the refrigerator next to the register where you’ll realize the best value for your money in town ($1.99). Say yes to tacos, indeed.
Taquería El Progreso/Tacos Locos
1017 W. Bloomington Rd.
10 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily
Another menu with street-style tacos, Huaraches is a perfectly adequate option for a tasty taco al pastor ($2.50). Tacos here are on the smaller side. The meat is tender and juicy — though not spicy — cooked well with an occasional crispy bit that other tacos lacked. Griddled tortillas come out a little greasy, but one bite delivers all the ingredients in good proportions. The chips that start the meal come with four different salsas, all of which help add more flavor for those who crave spicy tacos. Huaraches is one of the few restaurants that also offers a carnitas taco. The tacos fill a craving for the shredded pork, but they are missing the crusty outer layer that truly make carnitas a delight.
805 Philo Rd.
M 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Tu-Th 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F + Sa 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Su 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.