In Search of the Essential Taco

One thing rang true with last year's 100 Essential Dishes: Many of the dishes were Mexican or Mexican-influenced and six of those dishes were tacos.

Tacos are essential to Tucson foodies, but is there a quintessential taco? Here are some of the factors that set the standards.

You Don't Need Utensils to Eat Them

Tacos are meant to be held in your hands. Heck, you don't even need a table. They can be a little messy that way, but once you master the proper stance, you're in. Stand with your legs slightly apart and hold the taco with both hands. Now comes the most important part: Lean forward, with the upper part of your body situated over your feet so that any spillage hits the ground and not your shirt. If you happen to be wearing a tie, toss it over your shoulder. Some of the best stand-up tacos can be found at Suazo's Food Truck, which is at the Tohono O'odham swap meet on weekends, according to Henry Barajas, the Weekly's online editor.

If you're concerned about a mess, try ordering rolled tacos, sometimes called flautas. For easy eating, the Nico's restaurants offer three rolled tacos at an insanely low price.

Just About Anything Can Go in a Taco

Ground beef? Try the versions at El Merendero or Casa Molina. Chicken? Our Noshing writer, C.J. Hamm, swears by Chaco's version. Grilled meat? Give me an El Guero carne asada taco anytime. Seafood? The shrimp tacos at Sinaloa Restaurant are addicting. Taco Fish, which has both a storefront and a food truck, has marlin and cahuamanta tacos. FYI, that's manta ray.

The green chili chicharron from La Botana—Chow writer Jacqueline Kuder's favorite—and lamb tongue tacos from Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails prove that tacos can go low end or high end.

Boca Tacos—a favorite of several people I asked—is known for creative fillings that include octopus, rib-eye and rajas (roasted green chiles). They even serve a hot dog taco.

Gio Taco is another place where fillings are off the grid (Weekly senior writer Jim Ninztel calls them neo-tacos). The Fishy Pig combines tuna and bacon and the turkey taco has fresh blackberries and pumpkin seed salsa.

Along more traditional lines, BK offers spit-roasted el pastor (pork) and borrega (lamb).

Tanias 33 on Grande Avenue has potato tacos and at La Cocina you can get tofu tacos.

Can't make up your mind? Go to the B-Line, where fish, chicken and carne asada tacos are on the menu.

Toppings Can Be as Versatile as the Meat

Yes, lettuce or cabbage and tomatoes are a must. But what kind of cheese do you want?

Shredded cheddar still works for the tacos at Casa Molina. Monterey Jack is another favorite. But real Mexican cheese—queso fresco, Cotija and Chihuahua cheeses—top off tacos at La Botana, and Penca (again, a testament to the theory that tacos can be either down-home and uptown). And, goodness, don't forget the crema! What it adds to a taco is indescribable.

Salsas are as varied as the people who make them. Any taqueria that's worth its salt will have several to choose from: chunky pico de gallo, salsa fresca, tomatillo. The heat level is your choice.

Tacos Are the Perfect Fusion Food

Bam Bam Food Truck is famous for Korean tacos. Henry Barajas also recommends the pork tacos at DC Jumbie Latin Caribbean Food Truck, where the tacos are a bit more tropical. Blanco Tacos and Tequila has an award-winning barbecued pork taco with corn and tomato slaw, pickled onions and crema. At Brushfire BBQ, you can have a taco filled with your choice of any of their meats, with vinegar slaw, cheese and avocado cream. D's Island Grill JA, known for fab Jamaican food, serves beef tacos island-style.

Flour Tortilla? Corn Tortilla? Whole Wheat? Lettuce? Soft? Crispy?

Here is where personal preference plays a big part, but there's nothing quite like the corn tortillas that come hot off the grill at Pico de Gallo. Unless it's a taco dorado (see below).

Gio's veggie taco wraps butternut and chayote squash in buttery lettuce. You can find tacos made with local flour tortillas at The Cup. Both the Mission Street Tacos—with pork belly, jicama slaw, pickled onions and cilantro aioli—and the Drunken Fish tacos are available as starters on their dinner menu. Pasco Kitchen & Lounge also makes a point of using Anita Street tortillas in its various tacos.

And then there are fry bread tacos, often called Indian tacos. La Indita, on Fourth Avenue, is famous for popover tacos that come with a variety of toppings.

Whole-wheat tortillas seem to be used more for burros, but mesquite-flour tortillas are beginning to show up as well.

Thank goodness few places use those hard, preformed shells anymore.

Tacos Can Be Junky or Healthful

Some say a taco isn't a taco unless it's deep-fried, aka tacos dorado, with the ground beef patty cooked right in the shell. Foodies in town like the ones served at El Charro and at Crossroads on South Fourth Avenue.

Vegetarians can get their taco craving satisfied with veggie-forward tacos such as the ones found at Sir Veza's Taco Garage. They have two: the Veggie taco, with calabacitas (summer squash), black beans, house rice, pico de gallo, guacamole and poblano; and The Old Tractor, with avocado, broccoli (yes, broccoli), poblanos, mushrooms, black and green beans and pico de gallo.

Seis Curbside Kitchen, a food truck that recently opened a brick-and-mortar shop, settles the veggie question with a beer-battered fried-avocado taco that also has cabbage, cilantro, cheese and house sauce. And rumor has it that Tanias 33's taco de califlor—deep fried cauliflower—is killer.

You Can Have Tacos for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Appetizer or Dessert

Fini's Landing has a BLTA taco for anyone jonesing for a taco before noon. They fill a flour tortilla with pecan-smoked bacon, an egg, Jack cheese, romaine lettuce, tomato, avocado and their Chubasco aioli. And you can build your own breakfast tacos at Sir Veza's.

OK, so I haven't found a dessert taco. We don't count those frozen choco-tacos you find at the grocery store.

But Is There One Taco That Stands Out?

With all the tacos available around town—and the list above really only skims the surface—naming one taco as Tucson's quintessential taco is impossible. But that doesn't mean I won't stop looking.

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