(To be published by South Bay Accent magazine.)
Food trends can be fleeting; think raw food, cupcakes, molecular gastronomy and that rusty fondue set way in the back of your grandmother’s cupboard. But some trends have such broad appeal that they stick around, gather momentum and move into the mainstream. Upscale tacos are now in that favored spot, with this traditional Mexican street food having morphed into an anything-goes movement in which all sorts of delicious items are wrapped up — usually in a soft, heated corn tortilla but not necessarily — and snarfed down by a delighted public.
As one chef noted, folded and stuffed flatbread is an ancient global flavor-delivery system with endless permutations. However, the origins of this beloved Mexican dish remain a bit murky. Some say tacos were invented by Mexican silver miners in the 18th century. “Taco” refers to the charges they set to perform excavation. Or tacos could have originated prior to the arrival of the Spanish, when indigenous people living in the lake region of central Mexico filled flatbread with small fish. The fish were replaced by live insects and ants in the states of Morelos and Guerrero, while locusts and snails were favorite fillings in Puebla and Oaxaca.
Brought to America by Mexican migrants, the taco became a popular inclusion on Mexican menus and, not surprisingly, a mainstay in the fast-food firmament thanks to food entrepreneur Glen Bell’s massive Taco Bell franchise empire, started in 1962 in Southern California. About 20 years later, Ralph Rubio got San Diegans hooked on fish tacos, which he first tasted while on spring break in Baja, Mexico.
Given how well it accommodates culinary mashups, it was only a matter of time until the humble taco went international, flavor wise. Classically trained chef Roy Choi launched Korean tacos in 2008 in Los Angeles, kicking off the gourmet food truck craze along with them. At this point, tacos in all their guises are in demand, with their presence on U.S. restaurant menus having risen over 32% between 2010 and 2015 alone. Thanks to the popularity of tacos, Mexican cuisine is a close second to Chinese food as the most-liked ethnic cuisine among Americans.
When it comes to the Taco 2.0 in the South Bay, there are many suppliers. The abundance of mom-and-pop taquerias and simple Mexican eateries has made tacos ubiquitous but the adoration of this dish has inspired many restaurateurs to upgrade their ingredients and preparations to snag the attention of the many higher-end taco lovers out there. No longer are taco specialists limiting their protein options to chicken, beef, pork and white fish. There really is no wrong way to build a taco today, whether you like your wrapper stuffed with Korean bulgogi, Peking duck, coffee-braised beef, rabbit carnitas or any other tasty filling.
Here are some of the best fusion and gourmet tacos as well as some of the top fresh taco purveyors in the South Bay that demonstrate why tacos have become an ultimate platform for flavor.
Advertising their offerings as “trophy tacos,” this new entrant from Southern California was called an “$8 million taco temple” by a regional newspaper for good reason. The cavernous, modern, fancy-pants design seems an appropriate housing for an array of expected and unexpected taco offerings, about a dozen in all. Most guest order a trio of tacos — they’re petite, as is typical at most taco joints — and most feature blue corn tortillas. Puesto’s chicken al pastor taco (spiced meat with pineapple) wrapped in cheese is a big hit, topped with avocado and hibiscus-chipotle tinga, while another winner is the flavorful filet mignon taco that comes with melted and crisp cheese, avocado and a kicky pistachio-serrano salsa. Or try Maine lobster, local oyster or ahi tuna tacos that come with intriguing toppings. To keep down the costs, go to Taco Tuesdays for $3 tacos or inhale a few discounted choices during happy hour.
2752 Augustine Dr., Santa Clara, (408) 333-9750; www.eatpuesto.com
A small regional chain begun as a food stand in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and featuring crowds of avid millennial patrons, Tacolicious has no compunction to be authentic, delivering re-imagined tacos in a noisy environment at two South Bay locations as well as in the city. Chic and urban, Tacolicious uses organic, non-GMO tortillas, naturally, and delivers a host of exciting offerings. Biggest hits are the house-made chorizo, “shot and a beer” braised chicken and guajillo-braised beef. The vegetarian options are swoon worthy, like a roasted cauliflower taco wrapped in queso Oaxaca with piquillo peppers, special sauce and shredded romaine. Or dive into the kale, butternut squash and crunchy pepita taco or a version with mushroom “carnitas” that is meat free. The modern, fresh mindset is seen in non-taco choices and it’s fun to wash down just about anything with a pineapple infused-tequila cocktail rimmed with toasted coconut salt.
300 Santana Row, San Jose; 632 Emerson St., Palo Alto, 415-649-6077; http://www.tacolicious.com
Raves over the outstanding cooking at the original spot in San Jose’s Rose Garden neighborhood spawned a second location in downtown Los Gatos but both are superb places to munch on a slew of delicious, handmade tacos in a cozy, friendly environment. Of course, the tortillas — only one per taco instead of the usual two — are house made, the ingredients are fresh and the recipes highly pleasing. Deeply delicious is a scallop taco with asparagus and a slightly sweet chipotle glaze or a skirt steak taco with fingerling potatoes and chimichurri sauce. Then there’s the blackened salmon taco with shitake mushroom corn relish, cilantro aioli and crisped bacon. Vegetarians aren’t forgotten, as seen in a wonderful panko-roasted cauliflower taco with black bean puree, pickled red onions and cashew salsa. Tacos are just one of many alluring choices and a must-order starter is the guacamole, which comes with big slices of bacon and crunchy pistachios.
1411 The Alameda, San Jose, (408) 275-1411; 81 W. Main St., Los Gatos, (408) 884-8268; http://www.zonarosasj.com
Son of Wolf
This popular new spot in South Palo Alto comes from a prodigious restaurant family that has long operated several beloved Mexican dining locations on the Peninsula such as La Fiesta and Palo Alto Sol. However, the younger generation behind Son of Wolf has its own unique take on Hispanic cuisine that is just slightly so. For example, a remarkable family lasagne recipe shows up on the menu, as does Thai-style, pan-seared cod, an excellent cheeseburger and hamachi crudo tostada, which piles the rich raw fish on a small tortilla and pairs it with avocado puree, mango-citrus salsa and a drizzle of guajillo-infused oil. Don’t miss the blackberry-chocolate tart for dessert. There’s just one glorious taco on the menu but it’s worth a trip: duck confit taco on handmade huitlacoche (Mexican truffle) tortilla with avocado puree and flor de jamaica gastrique.
406 California Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 325-8888; http://www.sunofwolfpa.com
Milagros Latin Kitchen
Like the other high-end taco purveyors in the area, Milagros is super-picky about ingredients, sourcing them from local farmers and paying attention to environmental issues. The restaurant’s half dozen taco offerings come on handmade tortillas and elevate the simple taco concept to new levels, as seen in a tomato-braised organic chicken taco with marinated red onions, sour cream, queso fresco and micro cilantro. Or try the breaded wild shrimp taco crusted in coconut with passionfruit-jalapeño salsa, or the wild salmon taco in chile lime spicing with chimichurri and corn salsas. The same creative flair is seen in the rest of the menu, which is offered in an expansive, handsome environment featuring both indoor and outdoor tequila bars and patio dining. Not surprisingly, Milagros also serves popular dishes like avocado toast, yucca fries and churro sundae with hot fudge and caramel.
1099 Middlefield Rd., Redwood City, (650) 369-4730; http://www.milagrosrc.com
La Viga Seafood
Mexico City native Manual Martinez, owner-chef of La Viga, has had quite a career at regional French restaurants and brings his skill and high-end sensibilities to the seafood-focused menu here, which is peppered with one delicious choice after another. Folded inside homemade tortillas, the tacos are all winners, from the snapper filet with chipotle cream and cured cabbage, grilled salmon with mango and avocado salsas in creamy cilantro lime sauce, and crispy shrimp with tomatillo sauce, to some lusty meat choices. Try the braised pork taco with its exotic hint of orange spiced up with habañero or chicken with mole sauce accented by pickled onions and sesame seeds. Plentiful non-taco enticements are offered such as breaded, fried avocado with black bean salsa wrapped in a tortilla, a magnificent whole seabass and fusion-y crab cakes topped with mango habañero sauce.
1772 Broadway, Redwood City, (650) 679-8141; http://www.lavigaseafood.com
Rubio’s Coastal Grill
Prescient San Diegan Ralph Rubio likely had no idea just how much Americans would gravitate to Baja-style fish tacos when he opened his first spot in 1983. Now 200 strong, Rubio’s has outposts coast to coast and continues to serve the classic breaded white fish taco with cabbage slaw and white sauce — along with a whole lot more. Besides breaded fish tacos, there are grilled fish tacos, grilled shrimp tacos, coho salmon tacos and various combinations wrapped in stone-ground tortillas. Sometimes the fish is blackened and the sauces might include chipotle sauce, melted cheese or other enticements, like shrimp with cheeses, bacon, avocado and two chile sauces. Rubio’s has a fresh salsa bar for customizing and the menu has a plentitude of other choices like nachos, quesadillas, salads, burritos and more. Try the langostino lobster burrito (these little critters are closer to shrimp size) with garlic herb butter, rice, black beans, guacamole and various sauces to keep your tank topped for days.
5110 Cherry Ave. San Jose, 408-766-3350; 108 East El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, 408-245-0014; 515 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650-326-6691; http://www.rubios.com
Luna Mexican Kitchen
The husband-and-wife team behind this buzzy hacienda that opened in mid-2017 is focused on freshness, with a handmade tortilla stand — the corn is ground right there — located near the front door; the divine aroma perfumes the air. Among the handful of tacos, try the achiote-citrus slow-braised pork tacos with habañeros, herbs, cabbage and black beans, or the sweet-and-smoky bacon-wrapped shrimp tacos with pinto beans, cilantro and salsa. Fish tacos here are beer battered and enhanced by cabbage slaw, avocado and honey chipotle salsa. Vegetarians will like the crispy little taquitos made from pureed potato, shredded lettuce, crema, queso fresco and tomatillo salsa. The high-quality menu has other attractions like grilled corn on the cob sprinkled with cotija cheese and ground chile that’s drizzled with aioli, or some outstanding moles, or a meaty chile relleno offering. Even the complimentary basket of chips is outstanding, made from those just-created tortillas and paired with spicy avocado salsa and mellow tomato salsa.
1495 The Alameda, San Jose, (408) 320-2654; http://www.lunamexicankitchen.com
Given the owner-chef’s high-end culinary background, Sancho’s marries a classic taqueria with a freshness- and ingredient-focused dining spot, delivering excellent food at great value. This has helped Sancho’s expand to three locations and draw throngs, particularly at lunch. The fish tacos are renowned, dressed up with chipotle remoulade and customizable via a choice of battered or grilled fish and corn or flour tortilla. There are plenty of other taco options like grilled chicken, chorizo, carne asada, carnitas, shrimp and more. There’s even a tasty veggie taco made with grilled vegetables, lettuce and black beans. The salsa bar contains well-made classics and addictive spicy pickled carrots. Despite their small size, the Sancho’s locations have quite a large, appealing menu of other Mexican classics, with the massive carnitas burritos a particular favorite. The outdoor dining is a hit as well and the Palo Alto locations, in particular, attract scads of high-tech office workers and even hungry VCs.
491 Lytton Ave. Palo Alto, (650) 322-8226); 2723 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, (650) 324-8226; 3205 Oak Knoll Dr., Redwood City, (650) 364-8226; http://www.sanchostaqueria.com
This family-run operation has been around since 1987 and there are two Los Gatos locations on the same street to accommodate grab-and-go diners at the taqueria or lingerers at the larger, fancier Andale Patio. The latter is defined by its courtyard with a retractable roof, fountain and soothing atmosphere. Attention to ingredients and freshness are a hallmark of both locations and the tacos, wrapped in homemade tortillas, come with popular fillings like grilled or battered fish, grilled meat and chipotle shrimp. Vegetarians can munch on a tofu taco in which the protein is prepared fajita style or sautéed and paired with serrano salsa, rice and beans. Besides the tacos, there are plenty of other tasty options, with particular stars being a yummy mesquite-grilled chicken salad with goat cheese and avocado and crispy tacos filled with chicken slow-cooked with garlic, onion, tomato and chipotle chiles and blended with sour cream, quesa fresco, romaine and hot chiles.
Andale Taqueria, 6 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 395-4244; Andale Patio, 21 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 395-8997; http://www.andalemexican.com
Via de Pesca Si Food
This enduringly popular spot looks like a gas station turned into a restaurant but it’s fun and the food is fresh and tasty. Seafood is the specialty, as seen in a whole range of taco choices that include tilapia, salmon, snapper, tuna, scallops, crab, prawns, halibut and octopus. Patrons can get their choices breaded or grilled and all are wrapped in corn tortillas and come with veggies, avocado, chipotle sauce and classic salsa. While “si” food is the focus, various meat fillings are available like carne asada, chile verde, carnitas, chicken colorado and “chickenitza,” which is a sautéed breast marinated in an orange citrus and cilantro sauce. There’s even a veggie taco piled with rice, beans, sour cream, cheese, cabbage and guacamole. Generous portions and reasonable prices are just part of the appeal. Most visitors sit outdoors at one of many umbrella-covered tables that have heaters when needed.
55 N. Bascom Ave., San Jose, (408) 287-3722; http://www.diadepesca.net
Tacos el Compa Taqueria
Insiders know that despite the tiny size of this taqueria, what’s served is fresh, delicious and comes in generous portions. The owner is focused on authentic recipes and serves his tacos wrapped in homemade tortillas, which is usually a tipoff for those seeking the best taco joints. Most of the tacos are done in classic street-food style with fillings, cilantro, onions and add-it-yourself salsa. Highlights are the carne asada, chile verde and al pastor but everything is made with care and love. While street tacos are typically small, Tacos el Compa also offers some massive options like the El Jefe stuffed with cheese and other goodies that seems like a small pizza. Another big-eater option is the Huarache that’s layered with choice of meat, beans, sour cream, queso fresco, lettuce and salsas. There might not be a customer restroom in this tiny spot but there’s a sink for hand washing, which is much appreciated. Tacos tend to fall apart while being consumed.
1321 Blossom Hill Rd., San Jose, (408) 622-8035; http://www.tacoselcompa.com
And now for something different in the taco world…..
Tacos Move to Dessert
With so many ingredients being wrapped up in new-age tacos these days, it was only a matter of time until desserts joined the party, as seen at Rocko’s Ice Cream Tacos. Lori Phillips is a local dog lover (the operation is named for one of her pooches) who churns out organic, artisanal ice cream flavors that are then wrapped in a house-made waffle cone standing in for a tortilla, which is then dipped and flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen. For true hedonism, the ice cream taco can be sprinkled with one of several crunchies like nuts, cocao nibs, toffee, pretzels and more.
This isn’t supermarket ice cream. A dozen flavors include yummies like snickerdoodle with gold plum, matcha, lemon-blueberry, peanut butter caramel and peach ginger. Naturally, the coffee ice cream is made from trendy Verve coffee and the dips include dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate or peanut butter. Rather than the usual soggy cone with melting ice cream, this modern approach keeps the wrapper crispy and the ice cream solid. And then there’s the taste, with “wow” being the usual response from Rocko’s growing fan base. Made to order, these ice cream tacos let eaters be creative in mixing and matching all the possibilities. How about a honey lavender taco dipped in dark chocolate with caramel drizzle? Or tiramisu in milk chocolate with chopped pistachios? Rocko’s has a scoop shop in Santa Clara as well as a truck that cruises to various events and gourmet gatherings like Off the Grid. To hunt down the food truck schedule for this blissful treat, check the website.
Rocko’s Ice Cream Tacos, 2905 Park Ave., Santa Clara, (650) 762-5608; http://www.rockosicecreamtacos.com.