Tulsa taco crawl
A two-day tour of T-Town’s tastiest taquerias
Pastor tacos from El Rio Verde
Spotting a bad taco is easy. See yellow cheese? Turn up your nose. If your food’s been injected with sour cream that oozed from a caulk gun, run for the hills. And if the salsa comes in a little foil packet, shed a tear for the chiles sacrificed in this preservative-laden indignity.
I’m not ashamed to admit that the 15 years I spent in New Mexico and Texas turned me into a bit of a taco snob. If you know where to get world-class tacos for a dollar and change, why settle for anything but? Unless I’m desperate or in a real bind, I don’t suffer bad tacos—and neither should you.
I fell victim to bad tacos a few weeks back at a downtown eatery with a decent Yelp rating. On top of other offenses, multiple tacos were inattentively prepared, and were bland to boot. One of my tacos sat atop a single corn tortilla while the other sat atop two corn tortillas. This inconsistency puzzled me and made me despair for the state of our nation’s math skills.
Even worse: None of the three tortillas on my plate were griddled, which left them tasting raw. Griddling is essential in preparing tortillas. Doing so lightly caramelizes some of the natural sugars and moves the oils around so the locked-in flavors activate. (If you’ve ever wondered why those yellow Mission tortillas hanging out in your fridge taste like sawdust straight from the package, now you know.)
Another benefit of griddling is that excess water evaporates, adding structural integrity so your tortillas don’t disintegrate when you pile on meats, salsas, and vegetables. Tacos—like pizza—are a hand-held food. If you’re forced to eat them with a knife and fork, something has gone horribly awry.
This experience left a hole in my heart and another in my stomach. To fill it, I drafted my trusty dining companion J. and our friend C. to accompany me on a two-day taco crawl. Call it a scavenger hunt for the monomaniacal Mexicophile. Call it a recipe for salsa-induced ulcers. Call it what you will. We called it a brazen attempt to prove that “gorge” meant more than just a hole in the ground.
After all was said and done, we visited eight taquerias over the course of a single weekend, ordering multiple street tacos at each location. Street tacos—for those unfamiliar—can be consumed in three or four bites and, are rarely beleaguered by cheese or excessive toppings. They typically range from $1 to $1.50 and are meant to be eaten on the go. Our plan was to eat some tacos, then go eat some more. Then some more. And then some more!
The size and affordability of street tacos meant we could sample multiple specialties at each location without being forced to re-notch our belts or go broke. In total, we spent less than $100 for 40+ tacos, multiple Jarritos (tamarind, grapefruit and guava are my personal favorites), a Mexican Coke (made with cane sugar), some tamarind candies, and generous gratuities. Remember, when eating food that’s this good and this inexpensive: 20 percent is the new 15 percent.
Our first foray was at Tacos Don Francisco (4008 E. 11th St.), where we snacked on chips while waiting for our food to arrive. The chips were airy and light, allowing us to consume large quantities without risking early derailment.
After the chips, we dug into tacos al pastor (pork cooked with pineapple and annatto seed), cabeza (made from various face meats, most notably beef cheeks), carnitas (crispy, fried pork), pollo (chicken), and tripas. Tripas, literally translated from Spanish, means “tripe” (cow’s stomach), which is the shared ingredient in menudo and certain Vietnamese soups. However, when served as a taco, tripas refers to a cow’s small intestine, which has more flavor and a less gelatinous texture than the honeycomb tripe encountered elsewhere.
When properly prepared, tripas are perhaps the most underrated taco. The perfect combination of crispy and chewy, Don Francisco’s tripas provided a safe introduction for those looking to test the waters rather than dive in. As the saying goes: You eat with your eyes first. So, if appearances can put you off your meal, take heart in the fact that Don Francisco chops and flattens their tripas so the offal takes on the appearance of thinly shredded beef.
The cabeza taco at Don Francisco had a pleasing pastoral quality and was not nearly as greasy as expected. The same can be said of the carnitas, which were rich and crispy without spurting fat. The pollo and al pastor tacos were both satisfying and worth $1.50, but our socks remained firmly on our feet.
Our next stop, just a few blocks away, was La Flama (2603 E. 11th St.), an unassuming, two-room eatery tucked inside a strip mall. La Flama offers a different assortment of authentic Mexican cuisine than Don Francisco, and we were thankful for the variety.
We ordered tacos de pollo, al pastor, nopales (cactus pads), and pechuga adobada (chicken breast in red chile). The pollo and the adobada were both tender and flavorful, but the nopales stole the show, offering a delicious departure from our otherwise carnivorous selections. With just the right amount of browning from the flattop grill, the nopales had a subtle vegetal flavor and a texture that fell somewhere between green beans and zucchini.
La Flama’s tacos al pastor came decorated with pineapple chunks. For those who appreciate the way acidic fruit can cut through the richness of pork and the heat of the salsa, these tacos are for you.
The grilled fish taco was unique in that it arrived tucked inside a fluffy, flour tortilla and had an enviable crust that showed masterful technique. The fish was nicely seasoned and came topped with an avocado slice and shredded iceberg.
While every taco at La Flama stuck the landing, the gold medal went to the garlicky chile de arbol salsa, which seared our tongues briefly but never so painfully as to discourage additional samplings. In fact, the chile de arbol salsa was so outrageously good we greedily asked for some to go.
Jogging distance from La Flama is Mexican Corner (507 S. Utica St.), a restaurant/convenience store hybrid with arguably the best chorizo taco I’ve ever had. The term “spice” gets thrown around indiscriminately, especially when talking about Mexican food, but in this instance the term covers not only the addition of chile powder, but also—if our palates were discerning correctly—a touch of cinnamon.
The chorizo taco also lacked the puddling grease that can result from cooking the chorizo in too much water or buying an inferior product made from organs that contain an excessive amount of fat and lymphatic fluid. Instead, Mexican Corner’s chorizo was dry and meaty enough to develop a proper sear, which added a delightful crunch to what is traditionally a rather soft ingredient.
C.’s pollo taco was the best chicken we tried that day, and it wouldn’t be rivaled until the Saturday leg of our taco tour. The al pastor and lengua tacos were passable, but not impressive. The consistency of the pastor was more sausage-like than previously encountered, but the main issue was simply that it lacked signature sweetness and flavor. The lengua had great texture but also lacked flavor. The tripas taco, however, was on par with Don Francisco’s and prepared in a manner that also reduce visual scariness.
The salsas at Mexican Corner were somewhat lacking in heat, but this only allowed the brilliance of the chorizo and pollo to shine through without heavy interference. I’m prone to dousing my tacos in more hot sauce than is necessary, so I appreciated that Mexican Corner forced me to acknowledge the flavors as intended.
As we headed to our last stop for the evening, we spotted a taco truck parked next to a gas station. Because we had a schedule to stick to and feared straying from our chosen path, we continued onward toward El Rio Verde, whose shrimp taco and wet burritos have earned them a devoted following. Nevertheless, I made a mental note to add an additional stop to our Saturday schedule, even if it meant deepening our commitment to abdominal distension. (The impromptu addition would not fail to impress.)
Tune in next issue for the second installment of “Tulsa taco crawl,” where our intrepid diners finish their Friday feast before heading to the east side of town to encounter freshly-made tortillas, a family connection, goat-milk caramel churros, and a visit to the mystery truck.