When you close your eyes and picture a perfect taco, what do you see? Is it a hard-shell taco with spiced ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato? Or perhaps two small corn tortillas with shredded pork, onions and cilantro? Or maybe something in between? There are countless varieties of tacos out there — from fried fish to pork with pineapple, from roasted goat to cow’s tongue — and we’re proud to present our annual ranking of America’s best.
First, let’s define what exactly a taco is. By the broadest definitions, it’s a handheld, folded, unleavened flatbread encasing something edible. For our purposes, however, we’re defining a taco as meat or vegetables placed onto a warmed tortilla, with the express purpose of folding it and eating it with one hand. And man, there are some amazing tacos out there.
When it comes to leaders of a culinary genre, there are few restaurants in America with greater gravitas for their respective focus than San Francisco’s La Taqueria has for tacos. That gives it, and its tacos (carnitas among them, quite arguably the best), quite a heavy reputation to live up to. La Taqueria, just one of the Mission’s many casual Mexican joints, does Mexican the way it should be done: fresh. As if the amazing rice-free burritos weren’t enough (you’d never notice its absence), there are the tacos. To prepare the carnitas, chef/owner Miguel Jara slow-cooks chunks of pork shoulder in cauldrons of bubbling lard until tender, then roasts it until it’s crispy. When it’s tucked into a double layer of corn tortillas and topped with your choice of pinto beans, onions, pico de gallo, cheese, crema or guacamole (or none of the above), there’s no better taco in America; the burritos are easily up there with the country’s best as well.
One of LA’s most beloved taquerias (and our pick for the city’s best), Los Cinco Puntos is also an essential neighborhood grocery, and it sells its meats by the pound or inside of taco or burritos. Tacos are the real draw here, though, starting with corn tortillas made by hand from corn masa in the back on a large plancha. Meats including carne asada, buche (esophagus and stomach), and suadero are displayed in steaming piles behind a counter, but peer into the back and you’ll see a cauldron filled with pork shoulders boiling in their own fat. Clearly, carnitas are what you should order. After some crisping up on the plancha, they’re chopped and nestled into those homemade corn tortillas, topped with pickled nopales and salsa verde, and will forever change your view of carnitas.
At Chicago’s family-run Birrieria Zaragoza, goat is the name of the game. Namely, the roasted goat taco, or birria tatemada, based on a recipe that’s more than 100 years old. The goat is steamed for around five hours, then rubbed with an ancho chile-based red mole sauce before being roasted and served on house-made corn tortillas with fresh condiments, including onion, cilantro, red salsa and roasted chiles. You can request any part of the goat you like, but we suggest you go with the pistola, or shank. It’s juicy, tender and full of flavor, a bite worth seeking out if you’re even a passing fan of falling-off-the-bone meat. And who isn’t?
Located in an unassuming Barrio Logan back alley, Las Cuatro Milpas has been serving some of San Diego’s best tacos since 1933. Order up front, grab your table in the middle, and watch tortillas being made in the back. With the tortillas deep-fried to order, these crunchy tacos are filled with beef, chicken or pork, but opt for the shredded pork, topped with lettuce and tangy, crumbled goat cheese. The hot sauce — which is made by simmering chiles and spices in lard — isn’t for the spice-averse, but is addictively good.
Yelp/ Tim C.
Mi Tierra opened in 1941 with just three tables, and over the years the restaurant has expanded to seat more than 500 and now encompasses the entire city block (and is quite possibly the most famous restaurant in San Antonio. Highlights from the massive menu include chicken in mole poblano, enchiladas, carne asada and a specialty breakfast dish called machacado, but take one bite of the carnitas Michoacan, falling-apart chunks of pork in an orange-based sauce wrapped up in a pillowy-soft flour tortilla, and you’ll be hooked. Sure, this place may be a tourist trap, but it’s one of those rare touristy restaurants that even the locals love.
Yelp/ Carintas Lonja
When a taqueria has the word carnitas right there in its name, you know that they’re going to do it well. And at no-frills South Side showstopper Carnitas Lonja, chef/owner Alex Paredes cooks massive hunks of pork — skin, fat and all — in large cauldrons of boiling lard until the skin is crunchy and the meat is tender and caramelized, and it’s chopped and piled into spectacular handmade corn tortillas. Your taco will come accompanied by free pickled jalapeños and onions, pico de gallo and red and green salsas, but make sure you try some carnitas as-is before piling on the accompaniments. You’ll never look at fried pork the same way again.
Yelp/ Monica S.
Henry’s is an iconic spot for San Antonio’s signature dish (one that has since spread significantly beyond San Antonio to Dallas and Austin). This friendly strip mall restaurant is run by founder Henry Lopez’s sons Rick, Robert and Jaime and their sister Imelda. The famed tortillas are made in house and fried so that they puff out, creating a fun way to eat what otherwise is a relatively conventional Tex-Mex taco. The puffy tortilla shell is filled with the meat of your choice (spicy beef fajita is the most popular), then topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, grated cheese, sour cream and guacamole. With truly great puffy tacos, the shell shatters a little, adding textural variation to each bite, and that’s exactly what happens here.
There are precious few restaurants in the U.S. that specialize in Yucatecan cuisine, but La Flor de Yucatan is serving wonderfully authentic fare from the once-isolated peninsula. Traditional classics including chirmole (slow-cooked pork and beans) and puchero de tres carnes (beef, chicken and pork cooked with vegetables, noodles, cabbage and garbanzos) are on point, but no visit is complete without a couple tacos loaded with the most famous Yucatecan dish, cochinita pibil. To make this dish, pork is slow-cooked with citrus and achiote until falling apart, and it’s simply served with a smattering of pickled onions.
Yelp/ Lucas D.
The fresh flavors and simple but perfect presentations at casual, counter-service Santa Barbara landmark La Super-Rica, known as Julia Child’s favorite Mexican restaurant, continue to draw long lines of hungry customers. Though the vegetable tamales, cheese-stuffed pasilla chiles, chorizo quesadillas and the like have strong followings, it’s hard to beat La Super-Rica’s exquisitely minimalist tri-tip tacos: grilled tri-tip (from the bottom of the sirloin) — the defining beef cut on California's Central Coast — heaped atop made-from-scratch corn tortillas (you can watch them being patted by hand through a window into the kitchen). Feel free to add pico de gallo or other condiments from the oft-refreshed salsa bar.
Yelp/ Marlo M.
Santa Fe loves the green chiles from Hatch, down in the southern part of New Mexico, and their nearly supernatural ability to pair perfectly with just about any type of food you can think of. At The Shed, in business since 1953, the chiles are grown especially for the restaurant and brought in fresh daily, then processed on site. One of the best applications of this spicy green sauce that you’ll find in the city is on the restaurant’s taco plate: two fresh blue corn tortillas with baked chicken topped with green chile, cheddar cheese, onion, lettuce and tomato. The chicken is perfectly cooked, but the chile is the real star of the show (as is the stellar posole that comes with it).