Searching for “the best” of any cuisine can be a filling, but often elusive quest, a culinary game of whack-a-mole (guacamole?) in a dynamic local food scene where no sooner have you scaled Everest’s heights when yet higher peaks beckons through the distant clouds.
Such is certainly the case when it comes to tacos, the delicious invention of our neighbors to the south, a creation born of the practical need of 18th Century Mexican silver miners to go mano-a-mano with their lunch – ergo, “tacos de minero.”
If one grew up in Texas or southern California or even Denver and other points west, they would have a lifelong familiarity with the exquisite variations a taco can manage to transport, be it fish, pork, beef, eggs and even tongue.
Those of us hailing from the Wonder Bread corridors of 1970’s East-Coast America were probably first introduced to tacos via a tasty mix of ground beef, lettuce, tomato and cheese tucked within a crunchy shell (to this day, woe to those who don’t finish the tacos on round one; exposed to the ravages of mid-Atlantic humidity and without proper packaging, they get stale almost instantly).
This “Old El Paso” creation was like the Peorian (IL) cousin of ‘tacos de minero,’ a sporting American bastardization of a Mexican staple; to be fair, these puppies could hit the spot, nothing like the sacchariney Chef Boyardee (but beware the easily burned shells in the toaster!).
Fast forward a generation and the extraordinary resilience and absorptive powers of the American culture have placed tacos near the top of the foodie pecking order, with taco trucks and shacks seemingly sprouting up in every gas station parking lot and downtown hipster food court. Perhaps this invasion is a kind of ironic Moctezuma’s revenge, 500 years on from the 1519 arrival of Hernan Cortes and his acquisitive, colonial habits to the New World.
Whatever the backstory, our own recent visit to Mexico City – and the many tacos and other delights consumed while there – inspired us to sample the very best of the local tacos on offer. Here’s what we found:
Tacos Zavala (1205 Capitol Trail, Newark, DE 19711) – A food truck on Kirkwood Highway (“food trailer” technically) perched in the corner of one of the aforementioned petrol stops.
Zavala gets credit right away for the simplicity and humility of its menu: this place offers tacos only, and most days, four choices at that – alpastor (spicy pork), bistec (steak,) chorizo (sausage) and lengua (tongue).
Saturdays and Sundays carnitas are featured, the delicious Mexican take on braised, pulled pork. Served in the traditional style, with double-wrapped corn tortillas, cilantro and white onion and a wedge of lime, our crew found the Zavala tacos to range from good (beef and sausage (could have been a little more flavorful and not so diced)) to very good (carnitas and chicken) – consistent, savory and served quickly.
The consensus among our four diners is thumbs up (and at $2.50 per, it’s all upside) but not ready to proclaim Zavala as Delaware’s best.
Taqueria Jalisco (1722 W Gilpin Drive, Wilmington, DE 19805) – A taqueria cum-butcher shop/variety store off 141 near Faulkland Road, Jalisco was bustling with a diverse, in-on-the-buzz crowd for this restaurant that boasts 4.5 stars on Yelp and Google (and by diverse, I mean black, brown, white … day laborers and National Guard officers, etc.).
Orders are placed at the counter and bussed to your seat, to be washed down with an orange or cola Jarritos Mexican soda. Same traditional presentation as Zavala, same options.
Beef was savory, moist and flavorful – our favorite. The raw onion was a little overpowering, and on the way out when spying avocado on another diner’s plate we agreed that would have cut that acidity. (Checking in afterward two of our trio admitted to hitting the Listerine.)
The lengua/tongue was a bit … soft and spongy, which may or may not be its natural state – can’t say I have a lot of experience in that department; call me a Gringo, but we probably won’t go looking to compare. Embarrassingly, one in our group did request and receive lettuce and tomato. With the exception of the beef, these were solid, B+ tacos, but perhaps just an ever-so-slight notch below Zavala.
Brew HaHa Greenville (3838 Kennett Pike, Greenville, DE 19807) – Yes, that’s right, a coffee shop in what passes for the swankiest part of town around these parts is on our list. The chicken tacos (3 for $11) are the best pollos we’ve tasted in town. The most inventive and luxurious, with just the right amount of bite.
A slow-cooked, pulled chicken, served in a corn tortilla with avocado, onion, queso fresco and cilantro. Short rib (3 for $12) – royal trumpet mushrooms, onion, chipotle salsa verde, queso and radish. A little heavy on the radish and some may not care for the mushroom – struck us as beef stroganoffy, but the restaurant is on the “Kennett” Pike after all.
***Note: Brew HaHa Greenville also offers special tacos during its Thursday night happy hour when all are a nifty $2. Currently, those include roasted mushroom, zucchini and lamb. We have it on good authority the veggie tacos are delicious, but we can’t vouch firsthand (our dias and dinero are not unlimited!).
Nal Restaurant (1304 B Old Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, DE 19707) – This unassuming little gem deserves a proper review in its own right, a Latin-fusion spot (“diverse regional cuisines from Latin America”) in Hockessin you’ve probably driven by a million times unaware – as with us – of what delights you were missing.
The menu is filled with surprising, eye-catching choices and the bar a robust selection of margaritas. But back to tacos: our visit came at dinner so we decided to go with beef, and it was a very straightforward affair: they let the carne do all the talking. The meat was plentiful and rich, suggesting tenderloin tips immersed in a chipotle broth.
A return taco-focused luncheon included Pibil Pork tacos (“a Yucutan staple, port rubbed in achiote, herbs bitter oranges and spices then slow roasted for hours in banana leaves” – $14/3) and Colache tacos (“Mexican zucchini, sautéed with onions, corn tomatoes, poblano peppers and melted Chihuahua cheese” – $10).
The pork tacos were superb, served on an earthy flour tortilla, lightly grilled to perfection, complemented by tart pickled onions. We felt the melted cheese overwhelmed the vegetables in the Colache, and made it a bit messy too. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to Nal’s deviled Shrimp Tacos (“shrimp meets chipotle and gets married under melted gruyere, served with guacamole and black beans in flour tortilla” – $16).
La Poblanita (3804 Lancaster Pike, Wilmington, DE 19805) – This longstanding pillar of the local tacos auténticosscene has not only managed to survive, but by all accounts, it continues to thrive, and it ain’t because of a charming retail storefront. You may know the place – nestled at the end of a dry cleaner-liquor store – restaurant trifecta, on Lancaster Pike across from the gas station near the old Acme.
The mini strip mall has seen better days, but it is hard to recall when that was exactly. In any case, this is a charming, welcoming Mexican restaurant that serves delicious food quickly and with a smile (and cold cerveza). Always humming with foot traffic, as with Jalisco and Zavala, La Poblanita prices aim to please, with all tacos going for $2.75 apiece.
Chicken is our go-to here, and on our latest visit, they didn’t disappoint. One quibble on this occasion might be that the chef on duty decided to go a little heavy on the cilantro (see pic), but that couldn’t obscure the tasty marinated poultry with just the right amount of onion and lime. The sauces are always great at La Poblanita, and we love the salsa verde in particular, which really helps bring the taco alive. Ole!
Our Initial “Best Tacos, May 2019” Honor Roll:
Value – Tie: La Poblanita, Tacos Zavala
Chicken – Brew HaHa, runner up: La Poblanita
Pork – Nal
Tongue – Taqueria Jalisco
Beef – Nal, Taqueria Jalisco
Veggie – Still TBD
Fish – Same
Tell us what you think – what spot have we missed? Who have we dissed? Where next on our taco journey?