There's no shortage of terrific tacos in and around the Twin Cities. Over the past few weeks, I scoured the metro area — as far as Lake Elmo — to try dozens of taquerias recommended by friends, trusted confidants and readers. But there were rules: In the spirit of fairness, anywhere with table service was eliminated from this list. And yet these taquerias stand tall not just among any that serve tacos in the Twin Cities, but nationwide, too. Here are my top 10.
The top three
1. Nixta Tortilleria
Chef Gustavo Romero was around corn for most of his life — his family grew it around his native Hidalgo, just outside Mexico City — but he has dedicated the past four years to the nixtamalization process. I'm certain it paid off.
Nixtamalization, a soaking process that loosens corn and turns it into a coarser type of flour, yields sturdier tortillas. Not everyone approaches it with equal devotion. Romero sources his corn from Mexico due to its higher moisture content, and the team recently acquired a nixtamalization machine big enough to fit both Hansel and Gretel. Importantly, it allows them to process up to 6,500 tortillas a week without compromising on quality. (Find the tortillas at select local co-ops and food stores.)
While many corn tortillas — even those made by hand — fall prey to chalky textures, Romero's are silky and pliant and will convert flour tortilla devotees. Different types of corn tortillas get their own taco fillings, too. During my most recent visit, large pieces of mahi mahi, encased in crisp, burnished batter, were tempura-fried and served on yellow corn tortillas and balanced with kimchi, garlic mayo and thin slices of radish. A purple corn tortilla went with cabeza, or beef head, that was gelatinous and lush — not the kind that makes you feel like you swallowed lard. A blue corn tortilla for cochinita, the supple, achiote-marinated pork, where the sweetness from pickled onions hits mid-palate. And a white corn one for Nixta's vegetarian option, where chunks of meaty baby squash commingle with asparagus purée and pineapple salsa. Two tacos are $10 — not a bargain, by any means — but consider the ingredients and tortillas. And the fact that these are all wildly delicious.
Nixta operates takeout only, on Fridays and Saturdays. There are benches outside, but it was raining that day, so I wordlessly ate my tacos indoors, right by the counter, and exchanged nods of acknowledgment with the staff that I would be returning — soon.
Nixta Tortilleria, 1222 NE. 2nd St., Mpls., nixtampls.com
2. Valerie's Taqueria
"You like tongue?" Slippery organ meat is rarely the first suggestion offered at taqueria counters, but I tell Valerie that I'd eat it. The beef tongue, or lengua, in question was braising in a pot with garlic, onions and herbs for five hours before all the fixings (onion, cilantro) are folded in. The purity of offal is there but swatted by the richness of the stock followed by the browning of the meat. At first the jagged cuts of meat are chewy — not squishy, as many lenguas tend to be — but let them roll around a little and they will dissolve like candy.
Caramelization — along with patience — is what makes the street tacos ($3.49 each) at Valerie's Taqueria the Cities' best. Everything gets a different pot, with different cooking times. Buche, or stewed pork belly, are little nubs of char unlike the gluey bands of fat that most often are; barbacoa, or steamed loin, made with goat (in lieu of beef) resembles a fistful of gristle, but it surrenders as you bite; cecina, or sliced skirt steak, only needs oil and salt along with the daylong curing process, after which it is briefly grilled. And milanesa is pounded as thin as a handkerchief and fried until it produces a satisfying crackle. I still think about them all.
Valerie keeps a watchful eye on day-to-day operations, along with her brother, Ariel. Her parents, Jose and Jacqueline Aguirre, own the shop and named it after her, along with the carniceria next door, where a meat counter brims with pork belly, beef tongue, goat loin and other cuts. No wonder.
Valerie's Taqueria, 30 E. 32nd St., Mpls., valeriestaqueria.com
3. Tacos El Kevin
Depending on the time of day, you could walk into this convenience store in the Central neighborhood of south Minneapolis and encounter a haze. It's probably the grease from various meats that has evaporated from the stove and lingered. Tucked to one side of the store, where bottles of Dove shampoo beckon, is a sign with "Ordenar Aqui," or "Order Here," scrawled on it. You have arrived.
Estevan Olivares and Saturnina Valdez built their taqueria within a convenience store as an ode to their 10-year-old son, Kevin — the logo features a young man with a cowboy hat clutching a hard-shell taco. Still, these tacos ($3 each), the progeny of El Kevin's chef, Armando Dominguez, are grown up, weeping with enough grease that its juices seep through the Styrofoam plates. Tripa (tripe), a unanimous favorite, is juicy in parts and crispy in others, while the chicharron, or fried pork rinds, are squeaky and as flavorful as a long-labored roast. El Kevin is the type of place where the suadero (a type of confit pork cut too complicated to describe) is cured so it tastes gloriously of preserved meat. Plus: the salsas are forthright; the cilantro flutters; there are whole charred green onions along with quarters of lime with every order; and while the La Perla tortillas aren't house-made, they are cooked expertly, with puffy, brown welts in places. Few do it better.
3751 Portland Av. S., Mpls., facebook.com/tacoelkevin
Taqueria El Primo 2: Al pastor and carne asada tacos
As simple as carne asada (marinated, grilled beef) tacos may be, they can be tough to deliver given they come from relatively inexpensive cuts. Somehow El Primo 2, the Lake Street offshoot of the storied truck of the same name, figured out how to get marinade into the nubs of beef — most of the tacos served here are minimally dressed and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand — by enveloping each piece with a dark, smoky crust. Equally noteworthy is the al pastor, where the pineapple marinade tenderizes and sweetens the spit-roasted pork but does not cloy. Salsa won't be necessary.
$3 each; 1821 E. Lake St., Mpls., bit.ly/3SjkN0K
Taqueria Las Cañadas: Chorizo tacos
Not everyone behind a taqueria counter is going to hand you a 7-inch butcher's knife if you ask to split tacos, especially one hidden behind a cashier at a Winner gas station on Cedar Avenue. But not everyone is as passionate as Juan Tirado, who once ran a restaurant of the same name on Lake Street, several years ago before taking a break and then deciding that his tacos would sate anyone, no matter where. The sauces are still house-made. The meats emerge from the smallish grill, hot and steaming. And the chorizo is maybe the best of its kind in the metro: a confit-like cure with a livery, creamy finish.
$2.75 each; 3333 Cedar Av. S., Mpls., facebook.com/taquerialascanadas
Taqueria y Birrieria Las Cuatro Milpas: Birria tacos
Follow the drill when you arrive at the legendary counter-service restaurant on Lake Street: Place your order, get your number and know what lurks inside those large bottles of salsas. "Spicy, spicier, spiciest," we are told. For most, the buoyant salsa macha is enough, while the avocado crema really will seethe. You can apply them on the namesake birria tacos, a Jalisco-style stew of goat meat adobo and spices, cooked low and slow. But they're flavorful enough, even if the color indicates otherwise, and are best paired with the consommé, which the staff ceremoniously dispenses from a large tank.
$2.75 each; 1526 E. Lake St., Mpls., facebook.com/taqueriabirrieriacuatromilpas
Tavial Grill: Birria tacos
The birria tacos at this St. Paul counter-service restaurant are usually only advertised as a special. Why? They are the best tacos here and outside — equaled only by Milpas — combining tender meat that radiates with a head-cheese-like funk and spices and herbs that contour. The consommé, served in a coffee cup, tastes pure and sweet. Even if you don't get the birria, you can't go wrong: The tortillas are treated with care — light sheen, grease, textbook swells and all. Go.
$3.85-$4 each; 1199 W. 7th St., St. Paul, tavialmexicangrill.com
Pineda Tacos: Barbacoa tacos and carnitas tacos
You will eat well at Pineda, with sizable portions of meat under a hail of cilantro and onions. More is more in this case, especially with how barbacoa is treated: little treasures of fat (flavor) that anoint each bite and a marinade that teases but doesn't linger. Carnitas, by contrast, are silky, too, but so unadorned in flavor that it might be too carnal for some — though nothing that a dab or two of salsa wouldn't solve. And it's open until 10 p.m. most days.
$3.29 each; 2130 E. Lake St., Mpls., tacospineda.com
Taqueria la Hacienda: Suadero tacos
Yes, it's a chain. But a meal at any one of Hacienda's three locations will offer the same (terrific) experience, and tacos are prepared by cooks who have distilled it all down to a science; notably, the just-right texture of the yellow corn tortillas. The al pastor is popular among those jaded by tradition — stained a vibrant red, buried with cold pineapple shavings — but my favorite is the suadero, a blessed meld of fat and crunch.
$3.50 each; locations in Minneapolis, Richfield and Burnsville, taqueriaslahacienda.com
Taqueria Los Paisanos: Cabeza tacos
No matter the time of day, a line always forms at Taqueria Los Paisanos, not far from the Consulate of Mexico in St. Paul. Thankfully it moves swiftly with patrons who likely have their favorites in tow. Mine is the cabeza, emblematic of the style at Los Paisanos: maybe too light on grease, maybe too austere. No matter. The cabeza is tender with little fat and an unadulterated taste of swine. To experience it in full glory, opt for a single (not double) taco.
$2.49 each; 825 E. 7th St., St. Paul, lospaisanostaqueria.com
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.