What we found on our search for a great taco
Everybody likes tacos.
It’s why “Taco Tuesdays” are hits, and why bringing up “carne asada” or “al pastor” is a guaranteed way to get dudes to engage with each other at a party. (For best results, bookend this discussion with talk of ramen and IPAs).
But what makes a great taco? The taco field is so diverse it seems like there could never be just one correct answer.
Yet there is: For a great taco, all you need is well-seasoned, properly cooked meat or seafood, a fresh, warm corn tortilla and some additional element of spark, whether lime, radish, onion or sour cream, to help tease out those essential flavors.
Using flour tortillas is fine ... in a quesadilla or burrito. Successfully adding ancillary elements to those listed above is to be admired. But it’s not necessary. In taco assemblage, simplicity almost always beats complexity.
The Sacramento region is awash in tacos. Several high-visibility taquerias and/or Mexican street-food specialty restaurants, including Nixtaco, La Venadita, Mesa Mercado, Midtown’s Cantina Alley and Chando’s Cantina, have opened in roughly the past year or so.
This influx made me think more about tacos, and how I liked the gourmet versions of street tacos so much I wanted to find more of them actually served on the street – or in sun-beaten industrial-area parking lots.
In compiling this list of tacos in the Sacramento area, I sought recommendations from friends and local chefs. Most roads inevitably led to Yolo County, but I found gems north, east and south of central Sacramento as well.
Some tacos on the list are shockingly inexpensive, and others, from those gourmet places, not so much. But sometimes tacos with high-quality ingredients that you can eat while sitting in air conditioning instead of while standing in the sun taste really good.
This is not really a list for purists anyway, since Swabbies’ fish taco is on it. But I was pure of heart in my determination to find a diverse lot of tacos to recommend. To this end, I stuck to one taco per place, even though I could have recommended multiple tacos from my favorite spots.
This approach led to a lack of carnitas on the list. But the thing about places that serve great carnitas tacos is they tend to be great overall. In several instances, the carnitas contended, but another taco eventually won out. The choice was so agonizing (hey, great tacos inspire hyperbole) that I had to point out these instances below.
Here are 12 essential tacos to try in the Sacramento region. If your favorites differ, and you want to tell me about them, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adobada, Tacos El Paisano truck
As much an institution as any business on wheels can be, Tacos El Paisano draws Woodland workers on their lunch breaks from the moment it pulls into the parking lot of the California Market on East Main Street. That moment is hard to pin down – it might be 11:48 or or 12:03. Let’s call it “noon-ish.”
Any wait required is worth it, for the adobada taco, filled with tender meat rich in red-chili seasoning and served in two tortillas and garnished with grilled onions, pickled jalapeño, radish and lime. Cost of this flavor bonanza: $1.50.
The menu on the truck’s side translates “adobada” as “spicy steak,” which is curious since adobada usually is made with pork. Efforts to clarify, in person and by calling the phone numbers associated with the truck, were in vain. The issue did not so much seem to be a language barrier as Tacos El Paisano not giving a flying care about landing on any “best tacos” list.
I might be in love with Tacos El Paisano.
$1.50; 1490 E. Main St., Woodland
Al pastor, Lalo’s Restaurant
We visit this south Sacramento spot primarily for its excellent soups and stews, but the al pastor taco offers one more reason to come here. The pork is marinated in a sauce with seven different types of chilies, then grilled with onions and pineapple before being put in two tortillas and topped with hot sauce, chopped onion and cilantro. This taco offers meaty goodness, acidity, sweetness and heat in equal measure.
$1.50; 5063 24th St., Sacramento; 916-736-2389
Baja fish, Midtown’s Cantina Alley
Chef Arturo “Angel” Cienfuegos shows his Baja California roots with this taco made with red snapper that is tender of flesh but firm enough in exterior to stand up to the jalapeño-cilantro and mango salsas and yogurt-based sauce atop it. The taste of the beer used to batter the fish is there, but subtle. Overkill is the purview of that other fish taco on this list that is served at an interestingly decorated, mostly outdoor eating establishment.
Carne asada mini-taco, Taqueria Jalisco
This long-running Sacramento taqueria offers more comfortable dining accommodations than most taco trucks do, but not by much. You still sit outdoors, accompanied by the sights and sounds of traffic whizzing by on 16th Street.
Compared with the setting, Taqueria Jalisco’s food and drink offerings are luxurious. For instance, one can order a very well-made margarita to go with the taqueria’s signature carne asada mini-taco.
The beef is marinated in lime and orange juices before hitting the grill. Avocado salsa topping the taco adds creaminess and tang. But what “explodes the whole taco,” as Taqueria Jalisco owner Daniel Flores puts it, is the garlic spread that goes on the tortillas.
Chicharrón tacos are not created equal. I tried one recently that contained a wormy piece of pure fat I wanted no part of. At Nixtaco, chef/co-owner Patricio Wise roasts pork belly at a high temperature until it crisps, then dices it and sautés it in salsa verde. The tangy salsa verde works with the lime-pickled onion garnish to make a compelling case for this taco as a treat even more addictive than those pork rinds that come in a bag.
Chicken, La Piedad taco truck
You can taste the mesquite on the chicken, which is butterflied and grilled outdoors at La Piedad restaurant just down Northgate Boulevard. The poultry is marinated in orange juice and Mexican spices before hitting the grill. For the tacos, it is cut into chunks and served without fixings. We added some of the well-made salsa verde available on the truck, but it was not necessary. The key here is the tender, smoky chicken.
$1.75; 2700 Northgate Blvd.; Sacramento; 916-923-9022
Chicken tinga, Chando’s Cantina
At his first full-service restaurant, restaurateur Lisandro “Chando” Madrigal offers items you cannot get at his Chando’s Tacos locations, including wonderfully tangy-smoky chicken tinga, made with a tomato-based sauce with onion and chipotle. A topping of tomato sauce spiked with Japanese chili peppers and tangy crema further enlivens this taco, which comes wrapped in a house-made tortilla (another only-at-the-Cantina feature).
Chili verde, El Pueblo Meat Market & Deli
This Main Street spot in Winters offers multiple possibilities for any best-tacos list. Its carne asada and carnitas impressed but could not surpass the chili verde, which is too deeply flavored, and too obviously the product of great expertise in merging meat and spices, not to win out.
El Pueblo co-owner Baldomero Arce browns three cuts of pork – shoulder, rib and leg (for its leaner qualities) – before incorporating a blender mix of fresh ingredients including tomatillo and California peppers.
El Pueblo offers a nice array of flavors at its salsa bar. But our chili verde taco went unadorned, so as not to mess with a perfect meatiness/brightness balance.
$1.59; 43 Main St., Winters; 530-795-3450
Fish, Swabbies on the River
The beer-battered cod in Swabbies’ fish tacos tastes so much of beer that eating one during an alcohol-free, weekday lunch visit will instantly transport you back to that weekend when you quaffed cold ones at Swabbies while enjoying a John Mellencamp cover band and views of the Sacramento River and of its river-going people dad-dancing in the dirt.
The Swabbies fish taco goes against all that is authentic about Mexican food. But the blasphemy of Parmesan-encrusted tortillas hurts so good. The fish is fresh and the salsa verde – and ketchup, and ranch dressing, if you order fries with that – flow freely via squeeze bottles brought to every table. The initial sticker-shock of two tacos costing $12.50 fades once you take in the tacos’ large size.
Shrimp, Maya’s taco truck
We had searched and searched for a shrimp taco to love. That search went thusly: dry, drier, driest. That was before we encountered this wonder-producing truck parked on a scrubby, industrial stretch of West Capitol Avenue in West Sacramento. Maya’s taco holds succulent, fresh-tasting and well-seasoned shrimp – and a surprising amount of it, for $2. Maya’s crispy/tender carnitas taco tried to make a case for best-of-truck, but a good, inexpensive shrimp taco is so rare that we had to go with it.
Our experience at this truck makes us want to visit its mother ship, Taqueria Maya on Broadway in Sacramento.
$2; 4205 W. Capitol, West Sacramento; 916-459-9128
Tacos dorados de papa, Mesa Mercado
These vegetarian tacos are the ultimate comfort food – at least for those who like their comfort with a touch of tomato acidity. Creamy mashed potatoes are seasoned with tomato and garlic before going into corn tortillas and then the deep fryer. Crema and salsa atop the tortillas – served horizontally on the plate – freshen and sharpen this bargain of a dish, which comes with four tacos for $8.
Vampiro, La Venadita
The al pastor pork on this taco is tender and tinged with spicy flavor, but what sells it is the ample serving of ranchera salsa. Far more tomato- than spice-forward, this salsa evokes a certain Sacramento-centric hominess more than it does Dracula or Nosferatu. The aspect of the taco makes sense, since La Venadita owner Tom Schnetz – a Sacramento native who found success in Bay Area restaurant ventures – came home to open this Oak Park taqueria.
Where to get the area’s best tacos
Zoom in to find the best places for tacos near your neighborhood. You may have to pan east or west to see our picks in Roseville, Winters and Woodland.