If last year was the year of Italian, and this is the year of ramen, then put on your trend-spotting visors, because tacos are next. Already, three new taquerias have cropped up in our midst. We put them taco a taco:
825 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis
How to use it: A stylish night out
There is no surer way to a college student's heart than tacos and booze, and it doesn't take a costly education to understand the merits of either. The people of Luchador knew this, so they did what any savvy entrepreneur ought: They put a taqueria on campus. And what a taqueria it is.
Lucha Libre wrestling culture is employed to great effect; a large mural depicts a crazed, masked wrestler with claws outstretched. Beyond this, there's little to fear. The space is simple and sleek with an open kitchen and welcoming bar. It evokes a beachside snack shack.
Take our advice and splurge on an order of the warm chips and salsa for $5. A duo of roasted tomato and tomatillo salsas were the best in recent memory — hot and bright and hot and smoky with crisp, flaky house-made chips. It's well worth the price.
The tacos here get props for being the most inventive of the three places we visited, and when they work, they really work. Vegan roasted cauliflower with toasted pumpkin seeds and lemon is a surprising powerhouse, as is the light filet of tempura-fried cod with Kewpie mayo and pickled red fresno chile. Pretty cubes of properly cooked steak with creamy poblano and heavily spiced chorizo with deep-fried potato were also memorable standouts.
Things fell down a bit with overly salty braised pork, bland shredded chicken, and dry al pastor. Tortillas from local purveyor La Perla were steamed, but could have used a pass over the grill or flat top. A deep-fried chicken iteration didn't benefit from its odd baby kale and orange salad. But a beautiful, strange thing redeemed the chicken elsewhere: A buffalo chicken taco with blue cheese and buffalo sauce shouldn't have worked but did.
All of the tacos are served with a genius acidic, smooth green chile sauce that doesn't fight with anything, but enhances everything, like good salt or a squeeze of lime.
Though the menu was like a tale of two tacos — best of times, worst of times — we still thoroughly enjoyed Luchador and will return. The prices are extremely fair at $9 for three tacos, premium cocktails for $5 to $7, and a buck off drinks at happy hour. Service is earnest, helpful, and swift, and for all of the effort they put into the place and the food, we suspect it will only get exponentially better with time.
Bonus Points: Bar Luchador has a mighty fine margarita. No frills, just straight-up Reposado tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime, and agave simple syrup. If you've spent any time at all in Mexico, take one sip and you're back on vacation. It's just $7 for the pleasure. Also stop in on Tuesdays, when all the tacos go for $2 each.
1221 S. Robert St., St. Paul
How to use it: Takeout
West St. Paul and Robert Street retain their reputation as ground zero for Mexican food, even though most of the establishments haven't updated in far too long. They ride on nostalgia and tradition, and while that's just fine with us, sometimes we crave something fresher. Enter Taco Libre.
This efficient counter-service place is positively bustling, and we can see why. The menu is comprehensive, with almost 20 varieties of taco. Choose from standard options (chicken, steak), squiggly bits (beef cheek, tripe), and even things like huitlacoche (corn fungus) and squash blossom.
While you could eat here eight days a week and never get to the bottom of the tacos list, you needn't stop there. Enormous tortas, pozole, and menudo round out the menu along with a signature creation bound to make this place a talker. The "Machete" is a masa tortilla filled with lettuce, sour cream, Oaxaca cheese, salsa, and your choice of meats — and then deep fried. It's the size of a machete blade.
If you were to imagine Mexican soul food, Taco Libre would be the place to get it. The tacos feel deeply real, like the street food of Mexico. (The owners hail from Mexico City.) Carne asada is a full filet of steak that outsizes the tortilla. Chorizo with potato is heady with clove, and chicken is enlivened with a vibrant, mouth-puckering green chile sauce. Garnishes of onion, cilantro, and lime are abundant, and the salsas, available in spicy and extra spicy, are worthy of deference and respect.
Bonus Points: The pozole, rich and thick as an oil slick, bears a float of red chile oil that dares you to tangle with it. Big knobs of beef rib bob around fattily. This is a peerless hangover-buster. Be wise and pair it with a refreshing, non-alcoholic hibiscus flower beverage (jamaica in Spanish) from the fountain.
803 Bielenberg Dr., Woodbury
How to use it: With the family in tow, but where mom and dad can still drink
Whether you're a Woodbury native, transplant, hater, or loyalist, we can all agree: There just aren't that many great restaurants in this eastern 'burb. So we were heartened to see Cien Tacos crop up in a sterile-feeling business park. We were even more heartened to find out that it's pretty damn good.
Though you never actually shake the feeling that you are indeed dining in a business park, Cien Tacos welcomes with warm hospitality and a big, front-and-center bar. A decent selection of tequila and mezcal is on offer, plus priced-right margaritas starting at $4.99.
Overall, tacos here are done well. Barbacoa is as good as it gets: meltingly tender, dripping with adobo. Ditto the bright tinga: moist, piquant, and well balanced. Bewitching and complex tongue (lengua) is as deeply addictive as aged beef. In fact, we couldn't find fault with any of the 10 varieties of tacos, except the fish, which was overly assertive and ground into a strange texture, rather than a more desirable filet.
Cien also serves pozole, menudo, tortas, and other American favorites like enchiladas and gorditas. And in keeping with many beloved taco joints, they've got a do-it-if-you-dare dish: the Torta Gigante, $24.99 worth of torta that's the size of a birthday cake. Finish it and get your picture on the wall, plus a beer. (Because somehow you'll have room for a beer.)
The only reason we had to strip Cien of major points was the selection of watery and insipid salsas. These did not taste as though they'd been made fresh that day (or the day before), and sometimes even seemed prefab. We had to resort to bottled hot sauce, a depressing move in a place that's otherwise quite delicious.
Bonus Points: Complimentary chips and salsa, the only place that offered this once-reliable Mexican dining amenity.
While we liked all of the new spots for their respective assets, Taco Libre is what taco dreams are made of. Here you'll find everything you're looking for, save for booze, which goes to show you how much we really do love it. If they started offering drinks, we would never leave.