Admit it. When you were a kid headed home from school and you knew it was taco night, there was a bit of extra zippity-do-dah in your step. Despite the oft-stale crunchy corn shells that were frequently disappointingly shattered in the bottom of the box (necessitating building a pile as opposed to stuffing a shell), the lackluster seasoning used to enhance ground beef chuck (resulting in orange-hued grease), and the “salsa” that tasted like the inside of a tin can you thrilled to the site of the bright yellow box from Old El Paso. The taco kit and the accompanying garnishes your mother laid out put your childhood self in control. And you loved it. We all did.
It was the original dinner kit, predating modern at-home meal assembly incarnations by generations.
The Mexican and Central American immigrants who came to our aid in rebuilding our shattered region after the Big Bath in 2005 brought their culinary traditions and, in some cases, their taco trucks with them. In doing so they radically elevated the standards by which we regard tacos, and our demand for the fresh little hand-held meals just seems to grow and grow. Old El Paso simply doesn’t cut it anymore. We have been enlightened.
Choosing the New Orleans area tacos that stand out in a field of what must be thousands was a daunting, but delicious, task.
In an effort to bring some kind of order to determining which among them reign supreme I broke them down into three categories—Traditional, Non-Traditional, and Vegan/Vegetarian.
This category is anything goes. From Asian inspired (think kimchee slaw and Sriracha sauce) to hogshead cheese and jalapenos, these tacos pack a flavor punch. Grab some napkins and a cold one, and be transported on a tasty adventure.
808 Bienville St., 581-3467, gwfins.com.
Rumor has it that regular attendees of swank charity events thrill to the site of GW Fins’ miniature Firecracker Tuna Tacos.
“I initially came up with this dish for an off-premise event because it was a great representation of GW Fins,” said Executive Chef Michael Nelson, “and didn’t require us to use an oven or stove to prepare it.”
This makes sense. The little two-bite morsels are vibrantly colored and lovely to behold; tidy and self contained, cutting down on the incidence of wearing them on one’s gala finery; and packed with intensely flavorful tidbits of raw, sashimi-grade fresh tuna, so you can psych yourself into believing they are guilt free. All of this comes together to allow for the quick consumption of several without a second thought.
“It was so popular that we introduced it on the menu as an appetizer,” Nelson said, “and since then, it’s become one of our biggest sellers.”
Those of us unaccustomed to attending charitable soirees can fork over $12 for an order of three. GW Fins prints a new menu each day and the little tacos are on it when tuna is fresh, which is, thankfully, often.
“I think the dish works really well because there are so many flavors and textures in every bite, blending the richness of the tuna, creaminess of avocado, refreshing pickled ginger, and finally the crunchy wasabi caviar,” Nelson said. “To top it off we use locally made tortillas from Hola Nola and make the taco shells fresh every night. “
Belly up to the food truck. Get the optional kimchee on top and the Seoul Man tacos from Taceaux Loceaux land like a bomb on the taste buds. Bulgogi chicken, shredded cabbage, chopped cilantro, ribbons of pickled red onion, and Sriracha aioli, come together on a flour tortilla in an explosion of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.
The truck is regularly parked outside of Dos Jeffes Cigar Bar or the Kingpin lounge, both Uptown, but you will need to stalk them on Facebook or Twitter to know just where to find it.
Juan’s Flying Burrito
Four locations throughout New Orleans, juansflyingburrito.com.
The Taco Hennicano at Juan’s Flying Burrito (which makes both our traditional and non-traditional lists) literally inspired me to write a contemporary New Orleans cookbook (Fun, Funky & Fabulous, Pelican Publishing, 2015). Back in 2013 or so, my then teenage daughter and I wandered into Juan’s Mid City location and these tacos were on offer on the special board: Gulf shrimp and hunks of smoky tasso sautéed and finished with salsa fresca, shredded red and green cabbage, spears of pickled okra, a finishing drizzle of pepper jelly and a scattering of razor -thin slices of green scallions on a warm, griddled flour tortilla. These ridiculously disparate flavors really worked together, the colors made for a visual feast, and the whole thing tugged at something for each of us…jointly we realized this was a riff on the Shrimp Hennican appetizer at Commander’s Palace. Brilliant! Juan’s was, and still is, making luxury dining available to us members of the unwashed masses via a taco.
Many of the cooks in the kitchen at Juan’s four restaurants joined the crew after stints on the lines at the city’s luxury eateries and they bring their ideas with them. This is one such example. Its shows up from time to time as a special so you might want to call ahead if you have an envie for it. That’s what I do.
Turkey & the Wolf
739 Jackson Ave, 218-7428, turkeyandthewolf.com.
The Tacos Inauthenticos at Turkey & the Wolf are exactly what they claim to be. They are also a mess. First daters beware: there is simply no way to tackle this pile of sloppy deliciousness with anything approaching grace or decorum—unless your goal is to let the person opposite you see into your gluttonous soul right from the get go.
Tuck in for a gooey pile of house-made hog’s headcheese, jalapenos, shredded lettuce, sour cream, Valentina and American cheeses all heaped on a warm corn tortilla. You have to pick it up and eat it like an open- faced sandwich, there’s simply too much piled on to fold in half. Plan to part with $4 for one or $7 for two.
The Rum House
3128 Magazine St. 941-7560, therumhouse.com.
An improbable mash-up of a taco from an improbable mash-up of a restaurant that marries Latin America and the Caribbean cuisines, the Rum House’s Lambsbread taco successfully combines chunks of tender lamb in a tangy red curry on a white corn tortilla dressed with mint yogurt chutney and sliced, caramelized plantains for $5.25.
Wash it down with one of the creative, potent rum drinks The Rum House is known for.
The first culinary references to the “taco” appeared in the early 19th century when the word was used to describe a casual, hand-held Mexican food consisting of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling of meat, seafood, vegetables, and/or cheese. Traditional garnishes include pico de gallo, salsa, minced chilies, sweet onion, tomatoes, lime juice, sliced radishes, avocado, guacamole, cilantro and shredded lettuce.
El Pavo Real
4401 S Broad St. (corner of Fountainebleau Dr.) 266-2022, elpavorealnola.com.
Chef Lindsay McLellan departed the long-beloved Mid-City Spanish restaurant, Lola’s, in 2016 to open El Pavo Real, a traditional Mexican cafe housed in a former Time Saver convenience store in Broadmoor. Prior to taking up the top spot in the kitchen at Lola’s, she cooked in Mexican restaurants in New York using recipes passed down through her husband’s Mexican family.
El Pavo Real is bright, cheery and family (and wallet) friendly. Black and white checkerboard floors contrast tables covered in oilcloths of brilliant colors and various patterns.
All of the tacos are outstanding – Chicken Tinga, Al Pastor, Pescado Frito— but the Hanger Steak Tacos take the top prize. The toothsome cut of beef is rubbed with smoky ground chipotle, grilled, thinly sliced and served with a bright tomatillo and avocado salsa, a squeeze of lime, chopped cilantro, queso fresco, and a light scatter of minced jalapeño on a soft, warm corn tortilla. The menu, everything screamingly fresh, includes mole poblano with fresh tortillas, carnitas with beans and red rice, and glorious Gulf shrimp simmered in a sauce of chipotle and coconut milk over cilantro rice with plantains.
El Patron Mexican Grill & Cantina
101 Lapalco Blvd., Gretna, 301-3161
El Patron Mexican Grill & Cantina in Gretna is a bright, festive, place enlivened with Mariachi music, traditional piñatas and hoards of happy Hispanic families who pack the place on weekends. It’s usually a good sign when I am one of the only gringos in such a place. The Baja Shrimp tacos are overflowing with perfectly grilled, plump Gulf shrimp, garnished with shredded cabbage, a bright pico de gallo, a drizzle of chipotle salsa and slices of creamy avocado in a soft, warm white corn tortilla. This will set you back $2.89, unless you show up on a Tuesday—be ready to brave extreme crowds and a parking nightmare— when these gems can be had for $1.
Other noteworthy things on the menu include the Chili Rellenos El Poblano and the eye-popping Molcajete Fajitas. Order this and a sizzling Molcajete, the traditional Mexican version of the mortar and pestle fashioned of volcanic rock will arrive draped with chicken, steak, jumbo shrimp, and chorizo sausage, that cook via the heat given off by the vessel, the bowl of which is layered with queso fresco, grilled onions, Monterey Jack cheese, jalapeño chile toreados and salsa verde. An order for one easily serves two. Order one that is supposed to feed three and you can pretty much stuff an entire family to the gills.
El Mesquite Grill
516 Gretna Blvd., Gretna, 367-1022, elmesquitela.com
Another sprawling spot in Gretna, El Mesquite Grill is a hodgepodge of different buildings that have been strung together over the years to accommodate demand. The result looks and feels a bit like a frat house.
Operated by the Ortiz family, natives of Guanajuato, Mexico, the kitchen turns out vats of salsa, boiling cauldrons of chilies, and slow roasting meats. The tacos El Pastor are a standout on a menu that is generally good all around. Thick ribbons of tender pulled pork are heaped into soft corn tortillas and topped with grilled onions, pineapple bits, a drizzle of chipotle salsa, minced sweet white onion and cilantro. A platter of three with a side of refried beans will set you back $13.99.
Juan’s Flying Burrito
Four locations across New Orleans, juansflyingburrito.com.
According to Warren Chapoton, founder and president of Juan’s Flying Burrito, the joint first “lit up” on a funky stretch of lower Magazine Street on Feb. 7, 1997, just before Mardi Gras. If the trippy menu and fun-house-meets-punk-music-club environment are any indication, they’ve been lightin’ up ever since. Loosely based on the San Francisco Mission style burrito joints that were hot in the 80’s and early 90’s, Juan’s differentiated itself with Creole-laced, kinda-sorta Tex-Mex-ish food to order and finished a la minute on the grill. A truly wacky New Orleans style Mexican joint with creative interpretations of traditional dishes from both cultures, Juan’s makes the list with the Machaca taco, a new menu addition featuring hunks of slow cooked beef simmered with clove, cinnamon and cumin served on a white corn tortilla with sofrito, lime crèma, and crumbled Cotija cheese. Enjoy three for $8.75.
Adelitas’ Mexican Restaurant
7007 St. Claude Ave. Arabi, 309-9962.
We were tooling along on a Saturday afternoon hunting in junk shops on St. Claude Avenue in Old Arabi when hunger struck. Located in a short, tired-looking strip mall, Adelitas’ does not beckon with curb appeal. We were the only people in the place in the middle of the afternoon. Starving, we ordered half of the menu.
The food was worth every moment of that seemingly endless wait. It turns out Lilly Jones, the cook and our waitperson’s cousin, had recently moved to the area from Houston to take over the kitchen from her aunt, who was ailing. Lilly’s refried beans are peerless. The Chili Rellenos are fried with a light, thin batter that crackles to the bite, and the Carne Asada tacos are a revelation, the beef skirt steak grilled with just a faint touch of cinnamon that is really more of a suggestion than an outright flavoring. The meat is thinly sliced, served on a soft, griddled flour tortilla and finished with chopped cilantro and wedges of lime. It needs nothing more. This taco was the best $2 I have ever spent. This is seriously good grub.
Parking lot at Claiborne Ave & Eagle St.
Taqueria D.F. (“Districto Federal” a.k.a. Mexico City) is a 10 x 15 trailer with a permanent place in the parking lot of a laundromat (the “kitchen” is powered by a yellow extension cord from said laundromat and a couple of propane tanks). Three ladies bustle feverishly about in the tight space turning out a constant stream of delicious food from tabletop griddles and patrons stand in line, wait to order at the window then sit on the curb or in their cars until their orders come up.
Tacos arrive double-wrapped in corn tortillas of an irregular thickness that signals they were crafted by hand, and are simply adorned with sofrito, and lime wedges with small containers of a thin, potent salsa verde on the side.
The winner here is the chewy Leguna (beef tongue) taco. The slow cooked meat is incredibly flavorful and as tender as pot roast. The Carne Asada Gorditas are another incredible bet: two warm tortillas sandwich layers of grilled skirt steak, refried beans, lettuce, cheese, and onion. Take one of the tortillas, fill it with goodness and eat. Repeat. Nothing on the menu rings in over $2.
1719 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 427-0654, casaborrega.com.
Located in a beautifully restored Greek Revival mansion in Central City, Casa Borrego is awash in color, music, and art inside, and more of the same with the addition of a beautiful flower garden surrounding the expansive back patio that always feels like a secret. The winner here is the traditional lamb shoulder taco for which the joint takes its name, the Borrego. The succulent meat is seasoned with chili rub before it is slow cooked, chopped, and double-wrapped in a warm griddled corn tortilla. That’s it. No further adornment is needed.
Check in for lunch and pay $10 for three.
Global Data recently released a study citing that 70 percent of the world’s human population is either reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether. This trend is most evident in Millennials and Generation Z, those most likely to consume the greatest number of quick, easy, tasty tacos. Naturally, New Orleans taco purveyors have taken notice and have acted accordingly.
Juan’s Flying Burrito
Four locations throughout New Orleans, juansflyingburrito.com.
Juan’s Mardi Gras Indian tacos combine roasted corn, pinto beans, grilled squash, cheese, and spicy red cabbage slaw on white corn tortillas. $7 for an order of three.
304-4714, facebook/taceauxloceaux, twitter.com/TLNola.
As the founders of Taceaux Loceaux, Alex and Mairbeth del Castillo have been dialed into New Orleanians’ alternative taco cravings since Mardi Gras 2010. Their vegetarian options, which are easily adapted to suit vegan diets, include:
All Hat, No Cattle with seasoned beans and rice, shredded cabbage, radish, cilantro, crema and salsa picante on a griddled flour tortilla ($5 for two), and Jane Deaux with seasoned braised greens, roasted potatoes, Cotija cheese, crema, salsa picante, cilantro and toasted pepitas on a hot corn tortillas ($6 for 2).
Add an order of the Avocado Fries (wedges of perfectly ripe avocado battered in some light, magical tempura-like coating, quickly fried to a greaseless perfection and served with a magic potion/sauce) for $5.
La Castita Taqueria
8400 Oak St., 826-9913, eatlacasita.com.
La Casita offers a variety of produce-forward margaritas to enjoy while sitting on the deep front porch overlooking the bustle of Oak Street. Refreshing varieties like ginger mint, pineapple cilantro, pomegranate, and jalapeno are sold by the glass or the pitcher.
Keep the garden theme going with an order of three Papas Guapas ($8). The unique rolled tacos start with flour tortillas that are stuffed with roasted potatoes then deep fried and topped with avocado salsa, shredded lettuce, fresh pico de gallo; or and order of two Calabacitas ($8) grilled zucchini, yellow squash, radish, cilantro, roasted corn, and arbol in soft flour tortillas.
The Rum House
3128 Magazine St. 941-7560, therumhouse.com.
The vegan Curried Tempura Cauliflower tacos at The Rum House combine cauliflower coated and fried in a light, puffy tempura battered, with tamarind sauce, and curried coleslaw.
If an ice cold beer isn’t your thing, wash down your taco with a Jarritos soda, one of the most popular Mexican sodas in flavors such as Lime, Tamarind, Guava, and Jamaican (hisbiscus).