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Best Taco Stand

Los Betos
Four Locations

READERS' PICK: It's 1:30 a.m. and you're eye-to-eye with the last inch of a warm, watery beer. As sobriety returns, the hunger begins. Everything, everyone looks like food. It's late. Nothing is open.

Well, almost nothing. Stumble over to your designated driver and insist on Los Betos, where your five dollars gets you more Mexican food than any reasonable person could possibly eat, in all your favorite combinations: carne seca, rice and beans, fish tacos, bean and cheese burros, and the stand-out specialty, the California Burrito (no avocado here--just spicy meat and potatoes, melted cheddar and pico de gallo). Make sure to visit the dual-drive-thru action at the Grant Road/First Avenue location, for a quick fix even when business is jumping. Betos is open 24-hours, meaning there's never a last call.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP--TIE: Nico's Mexican Food, 1855 E. Ft. Lowell Road, could've taken the "best taco" category on sheer volume alone. Strategically located at the corner of Fort Lowell Road and Campbell Avenue, and open 24 hours a day, this busy little restaurant serves an endless stream of hungry customers. Nico's tacos are robust, crispy two-handed affairs with flavorful shredded beef and plenty of fresh trimmings. With the drive-thru window, you never even have to leave the comfort of your car when the craving for mouth-watering Mexican food hits you--even at 2 or 4 a.m.

Off the beaten path (but still near downtown), Tooley's Café, 299 S. Park Ave., proudly proclaims it's "The Home of the Turkey Taco." And truly, no shredded turkey is finer than Tooley's: Lean, seasoned and sizzled to perfection, you can order this juicy bird in a variety of Mexican favorites like tacos, burros, enchiladas, chili, and topopo salad. They also have a few stellar vegetarian items, and even breakfast burritos with fresh eggs. But really, the turkey is exceptional. It'll bring joy to your heart that food this good, made to order, can be yours for less than a five-spot.

CLUE IN: What can we say about El Merendero Drive-In Restaurant, 5443 S. 12th Ave.? You know you're in the right place when you're immediately greeted with chips, two kinds of salsa, and a bowl of freshly cut limes. As near as we can figure, the limes go with everything. Squeeze them on the chips, over your machaca de pescado taco (that's dried, shredded fish--delicious!), or into a frosty beer glass. The only place the limes don't work is in the jukebox, which features more than 200 Spanish-language songs.

CLUE IN: Okay, so hot-dogs take top billing at the little roadside attraction known as BK Hotdogs, 5118 S. 12th Ave., on Tucson's far south side--but trust us, when it comes to tacos filled with splendiferous carne asada, there's no grander stand in the world. BK's humbly began as a hot-dog cart that made its way around town, cooking up an awesome rendition of the all-American food. Sonoran hot-dogs consist of a plump wiener wrapped in a strip of mesquite-smoked bacon and grilled over an open flame, airlifted into the hollowed-out pillow of a bun, and topped with oodles of fresh-chopped tomatoes, onions, shredded yellow cheese and a burst of puréed colored toppings resembling the Mexican flag: ketchup, tomatillo salsa, mayonnaise (or mustard, if you insist on confounding the theme). Tiny grilled chiles complete the experience of ballpark food at its finest. All this is still an option at BK's, but now there's the additional choice of partaking gloriously in carne asada or cabeza tacos, caramelos or quesadillas. Latin salsa music blares happily as your order is put together. Our personal favorites are the caramello (a fresh flour or corn tortilla grilled quesadilla-style and then topped with BK's signature carne asada--itself succulent ribeye steak strips seasoned with just a breath of fresh lime and garlic--and the cooked over a barrel wood fire). It just doesn't get much better than this, especially if you sample liberally from the salsa bar, which contains fiery renditions of guacamole, three different kinds of salsa (all scorching), sliced cucumbers, shredded cabbage and pickled red onion. Seating is all outdoors on stainless steel tables and bench seats the owner made himself. One word of caution about BK's, though: the taste of that carne asada (not to mention the hot-dogs) can be habit-forming. Once you've eaten at BKs, simply nothing else will do.

CLUE IN: It's true; you definitely need to be clued-in to track down the wonders of Taquería Pico de Gallo, 2618 S. Sixth Ave. It's home on south Sixth Avenue is authentically adobed and crumbling, causing the casual observer to no doubt ponder what sort of business used to inhabit the place. But on closer inspection you'll detect the delicate aroma of carne asada. Small, non-descript and utterly captivating due to its family friendly service and outstanding food, Pico de Gallo is one of the finest examples of Mexican food in the city. Key among the many menu items of appeal is the dish for which the restaurant is named: Fresh, juicy chunks of various melons, pineapple, mango, jicama and fresh-cut coconut tumble into a bowl where they're delicately tossed with lemon juice and a zesty dash of minced jalapeño. There's absolutely nothing finer on one of Tucson's sweltering summer afternoons than this scintillating (and by the way, totally low-fat and healthful) specialty. Burros, tacos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches) are also amply represented, and each comes with your choice of various fillings, including carne asada, birría, barbacoa, beans, cabeza (head meat), lengua (tongue), cahuamanta (manta ray), white fish or guacamole. The minced shrimp ceviche tostada offers yet another cool and refreshing treat on a sizzling hot day. Be sure to wash it all down with some fresh-squeezed limonada or cool, creamy horchata (sweetened rice drink). You could spend more for great food somewhere fancier, but why?

Case History

1997 Winner: BK Hot-Dogs
1996 Winner: Los Betos
1995 Winner: Los Betos

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