What could be better on a sunny afternoon than a trip to Tacoville?
A few months ago, inspired by (and somewhat envious of) a blog about Taco Trucks in Columbus, Ohio and this article by Coulter Kirkpatrick about our very own taco truck I announced I was launching the 2009 Jacksonville Taqueria Tour. Since then I've been hunting, nibbling, and wolfing down some of the best (and... not so best) tacos in Jax. Along the way I discovered some new places, some old prejudices, and some excellent tacos. There are more to come, but I wanted to share these few with you before the memories fade.
Our tour begins on 103rd St. at the FORMER site of Jacksonville's only known Taco Truck - El Taco Yama. The truck was brought to Jax from Van Nuys CA by its owners, parked on 103rd west of 295. A tented awning shaded lawn chairs for dining alfresco. I parked behind the truck and as I approached, the owner was engaged in a lively chat with four or five men enjoying their noon meal. As I rounded the corner the proprietor shouted - GRINGO! and one by one the diners scattered to the wind. Only half laughing, I said "Hey - I heard that! I came all the way out here to check out these tacos - I heard they were great." He agreed, insisting they were the best tacos in town, and showed me the menu scribbled on the side of the truck. I ordered three tacos - to go - and they were... pretty good. Barbacoa, Pastor, Asada, each in a freshly made corn tortilla. It's top your own taco at El Taco Yama - and the condiments included chopped cilantro, jalapeno slices, salsas, white onion, pickled onion and lime wedges. (El Taco Yama has since vacated the lot and is presumably on the loose in Jax. If you see it, grab that taco!)
Next stop is one of my favorite restaurants on Jacksonville's west side. El Sol De Mexico is in a strip mall on Lane Avenue, south of Normandy. There is a small market next door where fresh tortillas are sold, along with canned goods and tamales. I visited during the crowded lunch service. The patrons (mostly men) were enjoying their noon meal with friends and co-workers, and when I walked in and sat down their lively conversation stopped entirely. I mean, you could hear a pin drop. They weren't staring at me, just silently slurping their soups and finishing their platas. It took at least ten minutes for any conversation to continue. Ironically, they all spoke Spanish, which I don't... The waitress brought a plastic covered menu of tex-mex style combo platters. I pointed to the daily specials written on the wall and ordered from there. The next visit I came after the lunch rush and ordered three tacos - Barbacoa, Pastor, Lengua.
They were all good and impossibly fresh, but Carnitas was amazing - soft, silky, perfectly seasoned melt in your mouth porky goodness. This was one of the best tacos I've ever had. Ever. The staff is always pleasant, and the place is much like a typical mom-n -pop grocery / restaurant, with the owner's son playing in the store next door, and loud festive music blaring from the stereo.
One thing I've learned from this experience - it is true that some restaurants have one menu for guests, another for their amigos.
An impulsive drop in visit at El Mariachi on Blanding Blvd. resulted in some pretty good tacos, but not before being handed this nasty stained menu, with bits of crusted food still clinging to it. A quick glance yielded the ubiquitous combos uno, dos, tres, etc. that are the hallmark of most bland Americanized Mexican restaurants. I was sure there was something better lurking behind that kitchen wall, so I quizzed the waiter - "I'd like a plate with just three tacos - what kinds of taco do you make" "We have the beef, and we have the chicken." OK, is that all?" Yes. "What kind of beef?" That one stumped him, so I persisted. "What do you put on the tacos?" "We put the lettuce, the cheese, the tomato... and the beef or the chicken." No cilantro? Onion?" "Onion, yes, we can put that. What kind of tortilla do you want - soft or crunchy?" Now I know this guy is messing with me... "Can you do the corn tortilla but soft?" "No, the corn... is crunchy. Flour is soft." Now I get the picture that there is nothing of interest in that kitchen, but I can hardly walk out after the quiz session, so I order two crunchy, one each beef and chicken.
They arrive almost instantly. Crunchy doesn't begin to cover it. Stale, crack a tooth crunchy, more like it. Flavorless ground beef, fairly decent chicken, both smothered in lettuce and white cheese. I politely soldier through as I take a deeper look at the menu - crusted on germs and all. Only then do I spy the small section tucked away to one side, written in Spanish, titled "Por Our Amigos." For our friends! The mainstay of the Amigos menu is, in fact, a plate of three tacos, with your choice of Pastor, Lengua, Chorizo, Barbacoa, Asada and more. NOW we've got ourselves a ball game. I call my friendly waiter over, and in as sweet a tone as I can muster, with the stale crunchy tacos still largely intact, I ask him "What's this? You keep the good stuff for your friends? I'm your customer too... Why didn't you tell me about these when I asked about the tacos?" His sheepish grin gave him away. "Is it because I'm white?"
"Yes, well most white people, they only like the beef and chicken, they don't like this."
Well I do. They were out of a few items so I got one asada, one barbacoa - to go. They were heaping portions of well prepared and seasoned meat, served on steamed, (non-crunchy) corn tortillas. I also ordered a poblano chile relleno, which was delicious, but not as good as grandma used to make. Prices were decent, food was good, the service was pleasant - despite the racial profiling.
That's enough taco talk for now - I'll be back later to post the rest - including some seriously delicious fish tacos from a couple of newer places at the beach...