The Texas Taco Bucket List: 50 Tacos to Eat Before You Die
Texas is taco country. The Lone Star State is the birthplace of taco styles and fosters a distinct taco culture (San Antonio Missions mascot Henry the Puffy Taco can attest to that). Texans crave a freshly fried crispy taco and can’t fathom a day without a breakfast taco.
Thanks to an influx of forward-thinking immigrants from across Mexico and classically trained chefs, the state’s tacos are moving beyond Tex-Mex -- although that home-grown cuisine remains vibrant -- creating new styles while honoring tradition and history. It’s a new golden age of tacos in Texas, and if there is ever a time to kick off a statewide tour of 50 must-try tacos that span every style imaginable, that time is now. Buen provecho, amigos.
Taco al pastor
While it’s commonly thought that only pork can be cooked al pastor (that is, the iconic Mexico City taco filling roasted on the vertical rotisserie called a trompo), any food can get the treatment -- be it rabbit, fish, or eggplant. In parts of Mexico, some taquerias will go so far as to alternate discs of beef and pork. In the ranchlands of the Texas Panhandle it should be no surprise then that al pastor comes packed with juicy, marinated beef the color of the high-plains desert sky at dusk, cilantro, and onions. Also in true Texas fashion, lettuce and tomato are served on the side. At least the guacamole isn’t extra.
Bacon, egg, and cheese
At East Side Austin institution Joe’s Bakery, a salty net of cheese isn’t enough to obscure the epiphany that is the centerpiece of this taco: bacon dredged in flour and fried.
Cactus and egg
Too often nopales (cactus pads) are poorly prepared resulting in a slimy dish that will drive away even the most ardent fan of the food. That’s never the case at Taco-Mex, a literal hole-in-the-wall, where the mess of nopales strips and eggs are spot-on every time.
Chile relleno taco de arroz
Listed on the menu as a taco de arroz (rice taco), this beaut of a blue corn tortilla under a bed of yellow rice topped with a quesadilla cheese-filled, breaded, and fried green chile is called a taco placero in Oaxaca and New York City. It’s a rare find in Texas. And at this North Austin bakery and restaurant, it’s a downright treasure. Give the taco a minute to rest. The cheese will firm up and the package will be easily handled. A treasure, indeed.
The Marlo Cheeseburger Taco
The best cheeseburger taco in Texas is found at this North Loop trailer. Funny thing is, the cheeseburger taco (with special sauce, to boot) isn’t an actual cheeseburger taco. It’s a vegan facsimile so great, you’ll threaten to shave the beard off the guy who took your order, “because that just can’t be a vegan cheeseburger taco, man!” It is.
When it comes to Austin’s signature taco, Veracruz All-Natural’s migas -- cloud-like scrambled eggs, mixed with fresh tortilla chips, pico de gallo, and cheese topped with an avocado wedge in a fresh tortilla -- has no equal. Don’t sleep on the salsa bar, with options that range from hot to it-will-hurt-later.
The Real Deal Holyfield
The Capital City is home to many notable mobile food vendors. But none is worth standing in line for in the rain like Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, an expert melding of Texas’ two great culinary traditions—barbecue and Tex-Mex. The pinnacle of which is this smoky amalgamation of mesquite-smoked brisket, bacon, and refried beans with a put-an-egg-on-it double-take finish, all on a downy, slightly dusty handmade flour tortilla.
Sausage patty and egg
The original Tamale House is gone, but the storied joint’s traditions continue at the family’s new taqueria, Tamale House East, where a chopped breakfast sausage patty served over scrambled eggs in a flour tortilla pocket is perfection, especially when served in the ivy-trimmed outside garden.
Barbacoa de cabeza
When it comes to traditional barbacoa de res de cabeza en pozo (pit-cooked cow head), there is only one master. That master is Armando “Mando” Vera, serving what is likely the only legally in-ground cooked beef barbacoa, which has earned Vera a following that lines up for his specialty -- whether it be cheek, tongue, palate, or even eye -- beginning at 4:30am on weekends. As a taco lover, visiting Vera’s is the ultimate bucket list item. There you’ll order a 1/2lb of the mixta (all the bits, including eyes) with fresh corn tortillas and sit a spell for customized tacos.
The borderland is cattle country through and through. Sweetbreads. Barbacoa. Tripe. They’re all common taco fillings in the region, but at El Ultimo Taco Taqueria, no-fuss bistek topped with salty, crumbled queso blanco, a giveaway you’re eating in the Rio Grande Valley, trumps them all.
South Texas is the land of super tacos -- flour tortilla-wrapped mishmash straining to contain a farmer’s stand worth of ingredients -- and Chacho’s in Corpus Christi is a sanctuary dedicated to the taco style, where bacon, egg, cheese, potatoes, refried beans, and carne guisada weighing in at nearly 4lbs will send you into a tortilla tizzy. Good luck. Godspeed. You’ll never have a better nap than after attempting to polish off your order.
Mexican restaurants in South Texas are the equivalent of classic diners or soda fountains in most other places in America, but the old suicide soda pop trick gets folded on its side for the breakfast taco take. Soft potatoes, crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, chorizo, refried beans, and cheese in a straining house-made flour tortilla make for a fantastic concoction.
Barbacoa de chivo
Any doubt that barbacoa is barbecue flits away with the first bite of this make-your-own goat barbacoa taco. Sold by the pound (half-a-pound is OK too), the smoked, soft meat lets off a gamey bite and comes to the table in a chafing dish with sturdy, fresh tortillas, and paper plates on the side.
Cabeza a la Casa
Scarce is the taqueria that slings tortillas from the sweet spot between hole-in-the-wall and modern joint. El Come Taco in East Dallas is the exception. Its design is one of exposed brick, brilliant Calaveras, and craft beer. Its menu is puro taqueria, with offerings from al pastor from a trompo, and the occasional veggie option to several Mexico City-style beef selections. Chief among them is the cabeza (beef cheek), glistening and easily slurped in a moment of joy. Mitigate that by requesting fluffy cubes of potatoes and grilled cactus strips as garnishes.
It takes guts to open a seafood-centric taco joint in landlocked, beef-loving Dallas, and then tack on $4 to $5 price tags, but when the staff’s pedigree includes some of the area’s finest restaurants, including Knife, Spoon, and Fearing’s, you can be sure of a singular experience. And that’s Tacos Mariachi, where you must go all in with this surf-and-turf campechana (Spanish slang for “mixed taco”), a griddle-toasted flour tortilla made right up the road bearing a tangle of octopus and chopped steak held firm by melted asadero cheese.
At Dallas’ new Monterrey-style trompo taco joint, the plainly named Trompo, the campechana is fetching, paprika-bathed pork shaved from a vertical spit that’s joined by bistec and mozzarella (an affordable stand-in for Oaxaca cheese) on a handmade Sonoran-style flour tortilla from nearby La Norteña Tortilleria. There is no better match of pen and corral.
Resident Taqueria is what other chef-driven taquerias want to be when they grow up. And it’s all there in the cauliflower taco -- florets of the caramelized namesake vegetable, ribbons of crisp nori-colored kale, pale green pepitas, and a drizzle of lemon-epazote aioli -- a diminutive nosh on an airy, delicate flour tortilla made in-house.
This underdog of a restaurant, the only Oaxacan joint in Dallas, does nearly everything by hand -- even the mole, which begins by staff hand-shelling cacao beans. Also handmade are the slightly crisped blue corn tortillas. They bear grilled cactus pads and one beef rib sliced across the bone with another ribs-worth of chopped beef, making for a salty, one-of-kind taco, worthy of the pilgrimage to West Dallas, cash in hand. Mi Lindo Oaxaca doesn’t accept payment by plastic.
Perfumed with the scent of the oil in which the raw corn masa disc was fried (check out the ridged edges!) but not greasy, this hard-shell paragon comes served with mild, fine-ground beef and the Tex-Mex trio of lettuce, tomato, and cheese, making for Texas’ crunchy taco supreme. Don’t forget to ask for the off-menu house salsa fresca.
Tacodeli was born in Austin way back in 1999, where it became an icon of the city’s breakfast taco scene. But it took expanding to Dallas to make it the best. In Big D tacos come on a base of La Norteña flour tortillas and the best of the best is The Otto, a breakfast taco of smooth refried black beans, an avocado wedge, and a crispy, well-cooked piece of bacon. Remember simplicity doesn’t mean pedestrian.
Forget about taco meat, that overly seasoned ground-beef pretender to the Mexican original: picadillo, which is never better than served on diminutive corn tortillas from Araiza Tortilla Factory, makers of Dallas’ A-1 corn tortillas. The protein is cooked with cubed carrots and onions and served saucy, wrapped in foil with accompanying salsa options.
The small Texas-based chain serves as an EPCOT of tacos with international dishes nestled distilled down onto in-house tortillas. The tops is the fried paneer, a cottage cheese from the Indian subcontinent paired with sweet tomato chutney, Thai basil leaves, and a tikka-raita sauce duo that kicks while it cools. The default tortilla here is flour, but sub in the purple, coarse hibiscus tortilla for next-level texture and a touch of bitterness that adds surprising balance.
Taco al pastor a la Tuma
There is nothing like the Taco al pastor a la Tuma. Inspired by the Mexico City after-hours street taco cousin, the costra, which replaces a corn tortilla with a fried cheese shell, the a la Tuma starts with the griddle-frying manchego cheese, laying a fresh corn tortilla on top of the cheese until -- but not before sneaking a slice or two of jalapeño between the two layers. The filling: partially charred pork shaved from the vertical spit that earns the taco al pastor its name, the trompo, is given a splash of habanero salsa before earning its rest on the tortilla. Finally, the taco is garnished with an avocado wedge and a sliver of pineapple.
Tortilla factories and meat markets are among the best places to find a first-rate taco. The chopped pork ribs in a shawl of salsa roja is certainly that.
Colitas de pavo
Everything you could ever want in a Mexican business is at Flores: a butcher, tortilleria, grocer, and restaurant packed into a tunnel of a freestanding building. Just as wondrous as the structure is the colitas de pavo taco, a rare style of tawny-colored fried turkey tails as crunchy as the cilantro, onion, and lime are bright.
At this snug spot on the southern end of El Paso’s taco row, Alameda Ave, a trio of corn tortillas are filled with pulled beef, subtle and juicy, and then griddle-crisped and shining from the hot-oil blanket, border-style.
Chico’s Tacos might hog the limelight with its namesake rolled tacos, but it’s important to remember flautas are a specialty of the border city. There are others. At the top of the rolled tacos list are these flautas ahogadas, lightly seasoned beef cocooned in a fried shell of 50-50 flour-corn masa resting in a sharp salsa verde bath dotted with queso fresco.
Avila’s, which has been serving generations of families with generations of familial employees, is a taste of old El Paso (pun not intended). Your waiter’s father, in pressed white shirt and bow tie, likely took orders, refilled chips and salsa, when the restaurant first opened, and your waiter’s son is likely doing the same at a nearby table. Both gentlemen are presenting plates of fried-to-order taco shells in which piquant ground beef stewed with potatoes and chiles and finished off with warm white cheddar and tomatoes, and crisp lettuce. The kicker here is that the shell is structurally perfect: it won’t disintegrate like some stale supermarket U-boat.
Potato and egg
The farthest reaches of West Texas are breakfast-burrito country, but that doesn’t abolish the existence of the occasional breakfast taco spot. In El Paso, there is none better than the potato and egg selection at H&H Car Wash & Cafe. The cooks at the legendary luncheonette serve the flour tortilla tacos with sliced wheels of potato, crisp on the outside with a cottony interior, and masterfully salted scrambled eggs. If you’re lucky, surly-with-a-smile owner Maynard Haddad, whose father opened H&H more than 50 years ago, will bring you the order with a side of sass.
A taco like no other for a city like no other, the Tacos Antonia, named for the owner’s sister, tucks tender brisket, cabbage, avocado, and Muenster cheese into a fried-to-order shell dusted with seasoning salt the color of El Paso’s dusty environs.
Northern Mexico isn’t just cattle country. It’s also spit-roasted milk-fed kid goat (cabrito) country. At Nuevo Leon, named for the Mexican-border state where this goat preparation, cooked over mesquite, is a way of life. Order a platter of your preferred cut -- the adventurous should go for kidneys; the novice should request the shoulder -- and feast on the gamey dish with the accompanying corn tortillas.
Chorizo and egg
Arguably the second bucket list-iest of bucket list taco joints is nearly impossible to find, offered as it is inside a restaurant that bears no indication of being a restaurant. That’s because the restaurant is inside a house, but once inside you’ll be welcomed by 90-year-old owner-cook Santos Aguilera or his daughter. They’ll rundown the short menu (three to four items long), but you’ll go for the chorizo and egg taco first thing. Married in the pan, the filling is salty but not oily and quick to cool. Eat it quickly. And run to Aguilera’s Café too. Once the old man passes, his namesake eatery will shutter for good.
This is a one-of-a-kind Fort Worth favorite. The crisped flour tortilla bearing your choice of filling (go with the al pastor off the trompo) and Oaxaca-Jack cheese is shot with pickled cabbage, onion, and cilantro. It's the manifestation of the owners’ roots in Oaxaca, Mexico City and the Rio Grande Valley.
If ever there was a frontrunner for best taqueria in Texas, it’s Revolver Taco Lounge. The Rojas Family restaurant gives Fort Worth a modern taqueria rooted in tradition. Classic chorizo and egg gets a makeover with a liberal pop of aged chorizo and a perfectly cooked quail egg. But it’s the pulpo, tender octopus cooked in carnitas lard topped with fried leeks and a balanced jalapeño salsa, that sinks the rest.
Barbacoa and refried beans
Whenever you witness an elderly woman folding dough and flattening it for tortillas -- whether for corn or flour tortillas -- order tacos on those tortillas. At this Houston standout, flour is the tortilla of the choice. The thin, nearly transparent discs are to be smeared with refried beans and packed with glistening barbacoa.
Cooked in a pressure cooker taller than a couple of jockeys out back, Gerardo’s cachete (soft beef cheek) strung with rivulets of fat is a dreamy taco.
Chicharron and egg
Fried and stewed chicharrones are a staple of Mexican cuisine on either side of the border. At longtime Bayou City standard bearer Villa Arcos, it comes crunchier than softer with a salty edge and a generous scoop of scrambled eggs in a homemade flour tortilla.
Cabrito al pastor
Select a cut of cabrito that has been split open on a skewer and roasted vertically set above the mesquite-burning grill. Then get ready to make tacos of meat that occasionally reaches over the gamey border but is every bit a shining example of a Rio Grande Valley specialty, including the northern Mexican side.
Scads of restaurants claim they offer dishes from across Mexico’s culinary landscape, but Pico’s delivers on the promise with chilorio, a simmered pork specialty of the Northern state of Sinaloa, that is rife with notes both sweet and hot from its chile-based marinade.
Texas’ largest metropolis isn’t appreciated for the taco city that it is. Its taco truck scene is stunning. At the top is Canino Produce Co. farmers market’s Taqueria Tacambaro, a trailer serving primo chopped mollejas (sweetbreads) sans the funkiness that turns people off to innards.
Roll-up in your car or step up to the narrow inside counter for the finest example of carne guisada, a heavy-handed ladling of beef in a silky, pungent gravy stew, this side of the Rio Grande
Rajas con queso
This hash of poblano strips with cheese is a classic Mexican breakfast taco, but is a rarity stateside. The version at Brothers is rarer than that, being that it is a punchy stew of chile ribbons popping with blocks of white cheese.
Let’s be honest: West Texas is a taco desert. So thank heaven for an oasis such as Martinez and its rich beef barbacoa, served in clumped strands that tear apart when you need them to.
Taco al pastor
In the land of crispy taco, one taco stands unbroken above the rest. And it’s found at this old-school drive-in taco joint where corn tortillas are filled with zesty vermillion-hued pork shaved from a spit and chopped to bits before delivery via carhop.
Barbacoa and Big Red soda is a segment of the food pyramid in San Antonio. Tommy’s is so proud of theirs, the restaurant painted a “Big Red and Barbacoa Everyday” mural on an exterior yellow wall of the Wurzbach outpost. Heed the call for the dynamite beef cheek, shredded and shimmering -- but not greasy -- nestled in a padded flour tortilla.
The Bicycle Heaven
Enjoying this jumble of fajita, potatoes, cheese, and avocado is easier than remembering how to ride a bicycle. Only The Bicycle Heaven, soft and comforting, is more like warm laundry than gears and saddles.
Egg with bacon
The first sign you’re about to experience greatness at The Original Donut Shop is the line of cars that begins in the gas station parking lot down the street and leads to the beloved breakfast spot’s drive-thru. The second and third signs are the line inside and that whatever else customers order, an egg taco with bacon is always requested. It’s nothing complex either: just a magnificent union of handmade flour tortilla, bouncy scramble eggs, and two strips of brick-red bacon. It’s often in simplicity where taco greatness resides.
Machacado con huevo
The blue ribbon for quixotic taqueria name goes to... Datapoint, where, before the machacado con huevo (dried salt beef pulverized to a fluffy consistency and rehydrated in scrambled eggs) is the breakfast taco before all other breakfast tacos. Soft and comforting, the machacado con huevo tacos eases you into the humid San Antonio day.
Ray’s Drive Inn is as close as we have to a Texas taco temple. Its Eucharist is the Lone Star State’s best puffy taco, raw corn masa that is deep fried until it inflates and is formed into a shell. Then it’s filled with lightly seasoned ground beef that’s topped with the Tex-Mex trinity of lettuce, tomato, and cheese. The result is a taco that is light, snappy, and not long for this world. Go easy on the Instagramming. Thirty seconds is probably all you got before the whole parcel turns to mush.
Taco Loco No. 2
Fill up early for a day in Texas’ cultural and culinary capital at the one and only tchotchke-packed Maria’s Cafe. And do it with Taco Loco No. 2, a super taco of sliced weenies, potatoes, refried beans, pico de gallo, and cheese to bind the glorious clash in a handmade flour tortilla.
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